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Barrick Gold chairman Peter Munk speaks at the company's annual general meeting in Toronto on Wednesday May 2, 2012.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Toronto stock market racked up a modest gain late morning Wednesday as gold stocks ran ahead while investors looking for a safe haven pushed bullion up to a 5 1/2 month high.

The S&P/TSX composite index gained 20.99 points to 14,288.22.

While another day of sharp drops in oil prices helped push the commodity-sensitive Canadian dollar down 0.28 of a cent to 89.79 cents (U.S.).

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U.S. indexes were mainly lower as the Dow Jones industrials lost 26.23 points to 16,325.02, the Nasdaq was up 3.83 points to 4,311.01 and the S&P 500 index dropped 2.79 points to 1,864.84.

Despite the gain, the TSX has been pressured by energy and base metal stocks amid worries about Chinese growth.

Data released over the weekend showed that the world's second-biggest economy experienced an 18 per cent drop in Chinese exports during February. That data had followed news last week that Chinese authorities had given the go ahead for the country's first credit default.

The TSX telecom and financial sectors also added downward pressure to the TSX.

The energy sector shed 0.55 per cent as oil prices have headed steadily lower, and the April contract in New York was down another $1.21 to $98.82 (U.S.) after losing about $2.50 since the beginning of the week.

Copper, viewed as an economic barometer as it is used in so many applications, has tumbled in recent days to the lowest level since mid-2010, having fallen 8.3 per cent over the last three sessions.

"China growth fears dominate sentiment and continue to fuel a sell-off in copper and commodity linked currencies," said a commentary from Barclays Research.

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"Fears following the first onshore credit default have led to speculation that further defaults may unlock copper from financing deals and fuel further selling."

The TSX base metals sector was down 0.4 per cent as the May copper contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange shed early losses and climbed a penny to $2.96 a pound with some analysts thinking the reaction to the China news has been overdone.

"Somewhere along the way, (China) has to slow down a little bit," said Fred Ketchen, a manager of equity trading at ScotiaMcLeod.

"But it's not going to be the end of the world. Markets will always overdo it on the upside and they'll always overdo it on the downside."

TSX losses were limited by a 2.45 per cent jump in the gold sector as worries about China, along with Ukraine tensions, pushed bullion prices higher with the May contract ahead $18.90 to $1,365.60 an ounce.

Traders also kept an eye on simmering tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

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The U.S. Senate has prepared legislation that would impose economic penalties on Russian officials complicit in Ukrainian corruption or anyone responsible for Moscow's military takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.

European bourses were deep in the red as London's FTSE 100 index lost 1.06 per cent. Frankfurt's DAX shed 1.57 per cent and the Paris CAC 40 fell 1.46 per cent.

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