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European markets close slightly higher; US payrolls increase 235k in Feb; BT up 3.7%

European markets closed to eke out gains on Friday as investors digested strong U.S. jobs data ahead of a probable rate hike next week.

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The pan-European Stoxx 600 pared earlier gains and ended fractionally in positive territory with oil and gas stocks outperforming other sectors. However, oil prices whipsawed on Friday and were lower at the European close. Brent crude was down by 0.65 percent at $51.83 a barrel and WTI was lower by 0.55 percent at $49.01.

Banking stocks were also higher, boosted by news that the Italian government is considering a 15 percent share sale in state lender Cassa Depositi.

U.S. nonfarm payrolls data for February showed an increase of 235,000 jobs and boosted investor expectations of an interest rate hike at the Federal Open Market Committee's meeting on March 14-15. The Dow Jones industrial average and broader S&P 500 continued slightly higher on robust jobs data.

Back in Europe, telecoms jumped following news that BT reached a regulatory agreement with Ofcom to spin off Openreach, which controls the UK's broadband infrastructure. BT shares rose 3.7 percent on the news.

Akzo Nobel, the Dutch paint maker, was close to the top of the European benchmark after one of its shareholders called on the firm to engage in further talks with U.S. rival PPG industries. On Thursday, shares of the Dutch company were higher after announcing that it rejected a $22 billion deal from PGG.

By contrast, shares of Segro were down by 5.6 percent. The firm said it was buying the remaining 50 percent of the Airport Property Partnership for £365 million ($439.8 million).

Repsol closed higher on Friday after it had announced an oil discovery in Alaska could raise its production by 120,000 barrels per day.

Fed meeting eyed; German data disappoints 

Elsewhere, investors continued to unpack the European Central Bank's (ECB) decision to keep interest rates unchanged on Thursday. President Mario Draghi also signaled that there was no longer a sense of urgency to take further monetary action.

The euro spiked to hit a fresh three-week high against the dollar after a Bloomberg report had suggested the ECB discussed the possibility of an interest rate hike before its asset-purchasing program had come to an end. The euro rose as high as $1.0670 on Friday.

In corporate news, insurer Allianz has picked Giulio Terzariol, who runs group planning and controlling, as its new finance chief.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed during a press conference in Brussels that Britain would start exit negotiations with the EU by the end of this month.

In terms of data, German trade surplus dropped to a 12-month low in January, data showed on Friday. The trade balance fell to 14.8 billion euros from 18.7 billion euros in January from the previous month.

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