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Australia shares slip as materials falter; New Zealand up

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[BENGALURU] Australian shares ended lower on Thursday, heavily pulled down by the materials sector, with Rio Tinto slumping after trading ex-dividend.

The S&P/ASX 200 index was off 0.4 per cent, or 20.399 points, at 5,784.7 by the close of trade. The benchmark ended 0.2 per cent up in the previous session.

The S&P/ASX 200 materials index fell nearly 2 per cent, with shares of Rio Tinto, the world's second-largest miner, facing their biggest fall in eight months.

BHP Billiton Ltd slid 2.7 per cent, its second straight day of losses, as copper prices drifted lower.

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London copper prices slipped on Thursday, with the US dollar firming as the market reassessed minutes from the Federal Reserve's last policy meeting that kept the prospect of a March rate hike in play.

South32 Ltd fell 3.9 per cent while Fortescue Metals Group Ltd dropped to a more than one-week low.

The worst performer on the main index, however, was Ardent Leisure Group plunging to a more than three-year low after it posted a half-year net loss of A$49.4 million, hurt by sales of health clubs as well as a ride accident at its Dreamworld theme park in October.

New Zealand's benchmark S&P/NZX 50 index closed 0.4 per cent higher, or 27.04 points, to finish the session at 7,089.52.

Healthcare, industrial and material stocks led the gains with Fisher & Paykel Healthcare Corp and Fletcher Building Ltd rising 1.7 per cent and 1.2 per cent, respectively.

Air New Zealand Ltd hit more than a five-week high after it reported first-half profit decline but provided a bright outlook that it expects a reduction in flights by Chinese competitors.