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Australia: Shares finish higher

[SYDNEY] Australian shares ended higher on Thursday as sentiment was boosted by upbeat profit numbers from miner South32 Ltd, while firm commodity prices helped lift material stocks.

The S&P/ASX 200 index rose 8.34 points, or 0.2 per cent, to 5,745.50 by the end of trade. The benchmark fell 0.2 per cent on Wednesday.

Material stocks accounted for half the gains on the benchmark, with major miners BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto , South32 and Newcrest Mining advancing between 1.7 per cent and 3.1 per cent.

The materials sector has been buoyed by higher prices for metals - a significant export earner for Australia.

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Nickel prices surged to an eight-month high on expectations of strong demand from China, zinc climbed to its highest since August 2007, aluminium rose to near three-year highs on speculation of Chinese capacity cuts and gold prices rose overnight on US political uncertainty.

World No 4 iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group ended the day up 1.0 per cent, as steel and iron ore futures advanced after sliding about 4 per cent on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, financial stocks lost ground with the financials index closing 0.2 per cent lower.

Grocery giant Woolworths Ltd, which has rallied strongly this year, was the biggest drag on the index, falling 3.4 per cent. Commonwealth Bank of Australia was the second biggest drag, finishing 0.8 per cent lower.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index was down 0.14 per cent, or 11.05 points, to 7868.41 by close of trade.

Dairy firm a2 Milk Company ended the session at a record high, gaining 5.2 per cent after it reported a tripling in annual earnings on Wednesday.

Trade Me Group was the biggest drag on the index, closing 6.6 per cent down,its lowest in over eight months.