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Sports Direct surges on flat FTSE session

Retailer Sports Direct International rallied higher after a buoyant trading update saw it buck lacklustre trading on the wider FTSE-100 Index.

The sportswear chain, which is controlled by Newcastle United owner and Rangers investor Mike Ashley, was the biggest riser in the top tier as shares rose 7% to 767p after it overcame testing year-on-year comparisons to report an 11% leap in sales for the 13 weeks to the end of January.

Investors paused for breath on the FTSE-100 Index, which edged 0.3 points higher to close at 6796.7, after robust gains in the previous two sessions.

Investors digested figures showing while unemployment continued to fall - to 2.34 million in the final quarter of last year the jobless rate rose to 7.2%.

Economists said the rise in the rate bolstered the Bank of England's case for keeping the cost of borrowing at record lows.

Meanwhile, minutes of the Bank's last rates meeting confirmed its view that rates should remain on hold to cement the recovery and indicated unanimous support for its second phase of forward guidance, despite no vote being held on the policy.

The pound held firm even though unemployment figures boosted the case for rates to remain on hold. Sterling clung to its four-year high against the US dollar, at 1.67 dollars, and stood at 1.21 euros.

In a strong session for retailers JD Sports Fashion gained 6% or 80p to 1450p while Marks & Spencer was also on the front foot following bullish broker comments in light of its new website launch this week.

Jefferies said the retailer's new site was "impressive" as it upgraded the stock from hold to buy, helping M&S shares lift 4.7p to 501p.

BAE Systems lost early session gains despite saying it had finally agreed pricing terms with Saudi Arabia on a long-running deal for 72 Typhoon aircraft.

It said the terms of the agreement were broadly consistent with the company's previous trading outlook for 2013, but shares closed 0.8p lower at 436.8p.

Elsewhere, builder Galliford Try made headway in the second tier after it announced plans to ramp up construction and more than double annual earnings by 2018 after record half-year profits.

The group posted an 18% hike in profits to £38.1 million in the six months to the end of December and said it had secured a £400m refinancing deal to help fund expansion as it predicts the property market will continue to improve. Shares rose 4% or 48p to 1215p.

The biggest FTSE-100 risers were Sports Direct International up 51p to 767p, Morrisons ahead 11.4p to 244p, Fresnillo 24p higher at 992p and Rolls-Royce 23.5p stronger at 1000p.

The biggest FTSE-100 fallers were AstraZeneca down 105.5p to 3987p, Carnival off 54p to 2468p, Barclays 5.5p weaker at 255.8p and Persimmon 27p lower at 1417p.

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