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Shares under duress as diplomatic tensions rise on Crimea

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[March 17, 2014]  By Hideyuki Sano

TOKYO (Reuters) — Asian shares took refuge near one-month lows as Western countries issued fresh warnings of more sanctions on Moscow after Crimea voted overwhelmingly to break from Ukraine to join Russia, as expected.

Japan's Nikkei led the losses with fall of 0.3 percent, sliding to one-month low while U.S. stock futures fell as much as 0.5 percent to three-week low at one point.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS> dipped 0.1 percent to stay near Friday's one-month low, after slumping 2.9 percent last week, its biggest fall in more than six months.

"The markets were expecting Crimea to agree to join Russia. So that alone is unlikely to move markets. The focus is on what kind of actions Russia and the West will take next," said Tohru Sasaki, the head of Japan rates and FX research at JPMorgan Chase.

Crimea's Moscow-backed leaders declared a 96-percent vote in favor of quitting Ukraine and annexation by Russia in a referendum Western powers said was illegal and will bring immediate sanctions.

U.S. President Barack Obama, rejecting the referendum result, warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States was ready to impose sanctions on Moscow, in the gravest crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War.

"We have to see what kind of sanctions the West will take. Obviously more Russians may feel they want to move their assets out of the dollar to safer assets," said a proprietary trader at a Japanese bank.

A fund shift out of risk assets could gain momentum if the confrontation between the West and Russia escalates to an extent that disrupts the fragile global economy, market players noted.

"If people start to review the optimistic consensus on the global economy at the start of year, we could see more than a minor adjustment in risk assets," the Japanese bank trader said.

Gold briefly rose to a six-month high of $1,391.76 per once, adding to last week's 3 percent and last stood at $1,381.84.

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The Japanese yen, often used as a funding currency for investment in higher-yielding assets, also traded near the top of its range in the past month and a half, with the dollar fetching 101.45 yen, not far from this year's low around 100.80 yen.

The euro stood at $1.3907, off a 2 1/2-year high around $1.3967 reached last Thursday after European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi spoke of concerns about the strength of the common currency.

The yuan weakened after Beijing announced on Saturday it was doubling the daily trading range for the yuan from Monday, adding purpose to the promise it would allow market forces a greater role in the economy and markets.

In the onshore market, the yuan dropped 0.15 percent to 6.1584 to the dollar while the offshore yuan in Hong Kong hit a 10-month low of 6.1624 to the dollar.

Analysts said the widening of the trading band was a sign of confidence that the central bank had successfully fought off a plague of currency speculators, and at the same time signaled that regulators believe the economy is stable enough to handle more financial reform.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Eric Meijer)

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