* U.S. data and Italy debt sale supported index-analyst
* Local institutions, foreigners net buyers
By Joyce Lee
SEOUL, Feb 28 South Korean shares hit a near two-month high on Thursday as investors' appetite for risk improved after U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reaffirmed his commitment to strong stimulus measures.
A smooth sale of Italian debt also helped assuage worries about the euro zone stoked by an inconclusive election while robust data on U.S. housing and business spending plans boosted sentiment across Asian markets.
The benchmark Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) gained 1.1 percent to close at 2,026.49 points, its highest closing since Jan. 2.
"Hopes for the U.S. economy has grown, while concern about Italy has lessened. Recent U.S. data has been positive, monetary easing was reaffirmed and expectations for a 'sequestration' agreement lifted the index," said Lee Kyung-soon, an analyst at Shinyoung Securities.
Sequestration refers to automatic cuts in the U.S federal budget due to take effect on Friday as Congress and the White House have so far been unable to agree on other ways to reduce the federal deficit.
The KOSPI's rise mirrored Asian peers' 1.3 percent gain on Thursday after Bernanke strongly defended the U.S. central bank's monetary stimulus in testimony before Congress.
Blue-chips gained across the board, with market heavyweight Samsung Electronics rising 1.1 percent after closing flat on Wednesday.
A few defensives were weak, with home appliance retailer Lotte Himart Co Ltd falling 1.1 percent while online game developer NCsoft slid 0.7 percent.
South Korean institutional and foreign investors bought a net 480 billion won ($442.63 million) worth of KOSPI shares at closing, buoying the main board.
Gainers outnumbered declining shares 569 to 235.
The KOSPI 200 benchmark of core stocks closed up 1.1 percent, while the junior KOSDAQ climbed 0.5 percent.
Move on day +1.1 percent
12-month high 2,057.28 14 March 2012
12-month low 1,769.31 25 July 2012
Change on yr -0.2 percent
All-time high 2,231.47 27 April 2011
All-time low 93.10 6 January 1981
($1 = 1084.4250 Korean won) (Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
Our top photos from the last 24 hours.