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Global markets boosted by Ukraine peace hopes

Global markets shifted higher on Thursday amid hopes that Russia was angling for a peaceful solution to the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Calls for peace talks from Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday marked a softening in Russia's approach towards Ukraine. He also called for a controversial vote on independence to be postponed and said Russian troops were being withdrawn from Ukraine's border.

"This move is widely being seen as risk-positive in markets as it shows Russia attempting to de-escalate the crisis. There are now growing hopes that Russia continues down this path and that this latest move isn't just a one-off," Ishaq Siddiqi, market strategist at ETX Capital, said in a morning note.

Read MorePutin to Ukraine rebels: Postpone secession vote

Russia's apparent U-turn was welcomed by markets, which have taken a battering over recent days on concerns of a move towards all-out war in Ukraine.

European stock markets opened higher on Thursday, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 index trading up 0.47 percent by mid-morning. Italy's FTSE MIB and Spain's IBEX 35 were among the strongest performers, trading higher by 1.15 percent and 0.82 percent respectively.

However, later on Thursday, Reuters reported that pro-Russian separatists had unanimously voted in favor of holding a referendum on independence on Sunday in Ukraine's east. The leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic told reporters that the date of May 11 had been endorsed by 100 percent of the People's Council.

Russia's Micex index, having closed higher by over 3 percent on Wednesday, fell on the news but recovered in late afternoon trade, up around 0.1 percent. The Russian ruble fell against the dollar, with the dollar up to 35.08.

Still, Asian shares rebounded, following the previous day's sharp sell-off, with equities also lifted by strong China trade data for April. Japan's Nikkei widened gains to close up 0.93 percent, while the Australian dollar hit a fresh two-week high against the U.S. dollar.

Read MoreMarkets cheer China trade, but analysts stay cautious

Comments by U.S. Federal Reserve Chair on Wednesday also helped buoy stocks, with Janet Yellen saying little to rattle investors in her congressional testimony. She stressed that the U.S. economy was "on track for solid growth" in the second quarter, but warned that a deterioration in housing or financial markets could alter that scenario.

"Yellen acknowledged recent improvement in the data, but put her emphasis on the ways in which the economy and labor market were still falling short of the FOMC's (Federal Open Market Committee) goals," Barclays analysts said in a note Thursday.

"The clear implication is that accommodative policy will be needed for a long time."

U.S. stocks mostly advanced on Wednesday, and stock index futures indicated a higher open on Thursday.

Spot gold was around 0.18 percent higher on Thursday, at $1291.25 an ounce, although this followed a 1.4 percent fall on Wednesday as Ukraine concerns eased.Brent crude was 0.51 percent lower on Thursday, at $107.58 a barrel.

Rate decisions in focus

In currencies, the euro continued to trade near a two-month high against the dollar on Thursday, as a rate decision by the European Central Bank neared.

By mid-morning, the euro was up 0.20 percent against the dollar at $1.3937, with analysts expecting no material policy change from ECB President Mario Draghi this month.

Read MoreECB to buy time with words not deeds

It comes after euro zone inflation picked up slightly in April, coming in at 0.7 percent – although this was below expectations – and a string of other data releases indicated a slow but steady strengthening of the 18-country currency bloc's economy.

"Solid growth, combined with a stronger euro and below-consensus inflation readings, make this week's ECB meeting especially tough to call," Barclays analysts said.

"We still think the ECB will stand pat on Thursday, though the probability of a policy ease, probably via rate cuts, is non-negligible."

The Bank of England will also announce its monetary policy decision on Thursday, although no change is expected.

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