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SYDNEY, March 14 (Reuters) - Australian shares tumbled 1.3 percent to one-month lows on Friday, hit by across-the-board selling as a drop in copper prices compounded worries over slowing growth in China and the crisis in Ukraine.
Miners took a beating in early trade as copper resumed its decline overnight. Index heavyweights BHP Billiton Ltd and Rio Tinto Ltd lost 1.6 percent and 1.7 percent respectively. Iluka Resources Ltd and Oz Minerals Ltd dropped 2.7 percent and 5.1 percent respectively.
China economy slowed markedly in the first two months of the year, with growth rates in investment, retail sales and factory output at multi-year lows -- decidedly soft readings that raise the spectre of a deeper downturn.
The S&P/ASX 200 index dropped 67.9 points to 5,344.7 by 0125 GMT. If the decline is maintained at the closing bell it would mark the biggest one-day fall since early February. The benchmark rose 0.5 percent on Thursday and is on track to lose 2.3 percent for the week.
“People are a little nervous especially since commodity prices have dropped substantially this week,” said Lucinda Chan division director at Macquarie Bank, adding that tensions over Ukraine and China’s data were hurting sentiment.
“If sanctions do go ahead, you’ll probably see banking assets and lending being halted - people are concerned this is not just an economic loss to Russia and Ukraine, but really globally as we’re all dependent on each other.”
Russia launched new military exercises near its border with Ukraine on Thursday, even as the U.S. cautioned that Moscow risked facing serious steps if annexation was the outcome of a referendum planned for Sunday in the Crimea.
The ‘Big Four’ banks all fell, led by Westpac Banking Corp declining 1.5 percent and Commonwealth Bank of Australia slipping 0.8 percent.
Gold stocks provided a modicum of relief as investors piled into bullion as a safe-haven. Alacer Gold Corp jumped 4.7 percent while Beadell Resources Ltd climbed 1.3 percent.
Elsewhere, Adelaide Brighton Ltd tumbled 8 percent to near 1-month lows of A$3.99 after the company said negotiations with a major cement customer in South Australia may end, meaning its estimated profit before tax would decline by around A$15 million from 1 January, 2016.
Starpharma Holdings Ltd soared 6.2 percent to 5-week highs of A$0.77 after its vivagel-coated condom was approved for marketing in Japan.
Unilife Corp climbed 9.9 percent to hover at near 6-week highs of A$0.89 after the company entered into a A$60 million debt financing agreement with an affiliate of OrbiMed, with A$40 million funded to Unilife at the closing of the deal.
New Zealand’s benchmark NZX 50 index lost 0.8 percent to trade at 5,069.0.
Reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Shri Navaratnam