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Stocks mostly higher as US job market improves

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks were mostly higher Thursday after the government reported that the number of people filing for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in three months. Office supply chain Staples plunged after the company said it was closing 10 percent of its stores as more people shop online.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose five points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,879 as of 2:55 p.m. Eastern. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 79 points, or 0.5 percent, to 16,429. The Nasdaq composite edged down six points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,352.

FEWER LAYOFFS: The number of people who filed for unemployment benefits fell by 26,000 last week to 323,000, according to the Labor Department. That was far less than the 337,000 claims economists had expected, according to FactSet, and a sign that fewer people are being laid off.

JOBS REPORT: Investors are looking ahead to Friday, when the government releases its monthly jobs survey. Many expect that employers held back on hiring last month because of the severe winter storms that hit much of the country. Economists expect that employers added 145,000 jobs and that the unemployment rate held steady at 6.6 percent.

“The market wants to look past the weather,” said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist with Prudential Financial. “Investors want to feel that the economic recovery is sustainable and that the weather's impact was only temporary.”

UKRAINE: Investors were keeping a close eye on Ukraine, where Russia has moved troops into the Crimean Peninsula. The market plunged on Monday, then roared back on Tuesday as the rhetoric between Russia and the West escalated, then eased. Moscow-backed Crimean officials said Thursday that the region would hold a referendum to decide whether it should be annexed by Russia. President Barack Obama declared that the referendum would violate international law.

COSTCO LESS COSTLY: Costco fell $2.92, or 3 percent, to $113.54 after the company's quarterly earnings and sales missed analysts' estimates.

RETRENCHING: Staples plunged $2.02, or 15 percent, to $11.39 after the office supply chain said it would close 10 percent of its stores because nearly half of its sales are now generated online.

OTHER MARKETS: Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note rose to 2.73 percent from 2.71 percent Wednesday. Gold rose $11.50 to $1,351.80 an ounce. Gold has risen 2 percent this week as the tensions in Ukraine escalated.

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