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Written by: Staff
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SINGAPORE, Apr 19 (Reuters) Exporters including Canon Inc. <7751.T> led Asian share markets higher on Wednesday, extending a global rally after U.S. stocks scored their best gains in a year due to an improved interest rate outlook.

The rally was expected to carry into European markets, and financial bookmakers in London forecast the FTSE 100 share index <.FTSE> would open 31-32 points higher.

''We expect strong openings across Europe this morning - the bulk of the U.S. gains we saw yesterday were posted after the European markets had closed,'' said David Skilton, a trader at IG Index.

Investor sentiment was strong despite high energy prices and a new 25-year high for gold. U.S. crude oil futures slid 40 cents but held near the record $71.60 a barrel set on Tuesday, while gold jumped to $624.40 an ounce before retracing the day's gains.

The dollar hit a seven-month low against the euro, extending losses made after minutes of the U.S. Federal Reserve's March meeting suggested the central bank was close to ending a two-year run of raising interest rates.

Benchmark indexes in South Korea, Australia and Singapore touched all-time records, helping to lift the MSCI's index of non-Japan Asian shares <.MSCIAPJ> 1.3 percent by 0622 GMT.

Technology, financial, mining and other resource sectors all showed strong gains.

Japan's benchmark Nikkei average <.N225> closed up 0.68 percent.

Among the gainers was Sony Corp. <6758.T> whose shares rose 2.1 percent, pacing other tech firms after strong quarterly results from U.S. blue chips after the market close, including International Business Machines Corp. , Yahoo Inc.

, and Texas Instruments Inc. .

FOCUS ON FED MINUTES U.S. stocks were jolted higher by minutes from the last Federal Reserve meeting that signalled the rate increase campaign may be near an end. The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> climbed 1.76 percent, while the Nasdaq <.IXIC> added 1.95 percent.

The minutes from the March 27-28 policy meeting said: ''Most members thought that the end of the tightening process was likely to be near, and some expressed concerns about the dangers of tightening too much, given the lags in the effects of policy.'' The market still expects another rise at the next meeting in May, but prospects for a further tightening beyond that seemed reduced, traders said.

In Asian trading hours, the euro bought $1.2348 , off a seven-month high of $1.2368 hit earlier in the session, and the dollar traded at 116.80 yen , down from around 117.05 yen in late New York trade.

Japanese government bond prices rose, recovering from a wave of selling on Tuesday, after the Fed minutes and strong auction demand.

The yield on the benchmark cash bond <0#JPTSY=JBTC> slipped 5.5 basis points to 1.905 percent. Market participants said Tuesday's jump to the key 2 percent level had triggered a spate of dip buying.

ASIA STOCKS RALLY Australia's share index <.AXJO> rose 0.67 percent after setting a new high of 5,301.8 on continued strength in mining giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto ''The underlying strength in commodities could prompt some earnings upgrades in the resources side of the market,'' said Eric Betts, head of strategy at Nomura Australia.

South Korea's main index <.KS11> also set a new peak of 1,450.53 but trimmed gains after LG Electronics Inc.

<066570.KS>, the world's fourth-biggest mobile phone maker, reported strong earnings but noted it is grappling with sliding margins on its mobile phones.

Singapore <.STI> joined the record-setters, with technology and financial stocks helping to push the index more than 1 percent higher.

Indexes in Hong Kong <.HSI> and Taiwan <.TWII> climbed to 5-and-a-half year highs.

Spot gold traded as high as $624.40 an ounce, a quarter-century high, and was fetching $622.50/$623.30 at 0630 GMT.

''We're seeing strong support among buyers across the spectrum,'' a dealer said, noting institutional fund purchases showed no sign of waning.

REUTERS CS HS1221

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