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Asia Stocks Mixed, Benchmarks Close To Year Highs

By PAMELA SAMPSON

BANGKOK (AP) â¿¿ Asian stock markets rose Friday after the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week, offsetting a somber economic forecast by the European Central Bank for a bleak year ahead in the region.

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that applications dropped 25,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 370,000, a level consistent with modest hiring. The number of people continuing to receive unemployment aid also fell.

Japan's Nikkei 225 index rose 0.1 percent to 9,554.09. South Korea's Kospi added 0.4 percent to 1,958.13. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 rose 1 percent to 4,552.40. Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.2 percent to 22,299.21.

On Thursday, the European Central Bank said that the economies of 17 countries that use the euro will contract next year. The central bank stopped short of offering new measures to boost growth and left its key interest rate unchanged at a record low.

The combined economy of the euro countries is in a recession after a massive debt crisis followed by government spending cuts and tax hikes that have hurt growth.

"Although the ECB left policy rates unchanged the post ECB meeting press conference effectively opened the door to a rate cut in Q1 next year following sharp downward revisions to growth projections and well below target inflation projected over the medium term," said analysts at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong.

Benchmark oil for January delivery was up 16 cents to $86.42 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell $1.62, or 1.8 percent, to finish at $86.26 per barrel in New York on Thursday.

In currencies, the euro rose to $1.2969 from $1.2963 late Thursday in New York. The dollar rose to 82.47 yen from 82.36 yen.

___

Follow Pamela Sampson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pamelasampson
Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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