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Investors seek safety on rising U.S. tensions with Russia, Syria, North Korea

Pedestrians are reflected on an electronic board showing Japan's Nikkei average (top L), the Dow Jones average (top R) and the stock averages of other countries outside a brokerage in Tokyo, Japan, January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Sinead Carew

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors sought shelter in gold, U.S. Treasuries and the yen on Tuesday as tensions rose between the United States and Russia, in addition to worries about U.S. relations with Syria and North Korea.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson carried a message from world powers to Moscow on Tuesday denouncing Russian support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian warplanes dropped barrel bombs on rebel-held areas a day after the United States said their use could lead to further U.S. strikes in Syria. Syria denied the attack.

Also, North Korean state media warned of a nuclear attack on the United States at any sign of American aggression as a U.S. Navy strike group steamed toward the western Pacific.

The United States and other countries blamed Syria's Assad for a deadly gas attack last week and U.S. President Donald Trump responded by firing cruise missiles at a Syrian air base while Russian President Vladimir Putin has stood by Assad.

"The most keen focus today is on Syria and Russia," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist at RidgeWorth Investments in Atlanta, Georgia.

"The market is still waiting for tangible evidence of economic and corporate profit strength but they're not going to get that for another day or two. While they wait for that direct data, these geopolitical headlines are taking center stage."

The U.S. government debt market rallied, with the 30-year yield touching near three-month lows as fresh concerns about the French presidential election and possible U.S. military action against Syria and North Korea spurred safe-haven demand.

U.S. benchmark 10-year Treasury yields fell 6 basis points to 2.302 percent. The 30-year bond yield was down more than 5 basis points at 2.931 percent after touching 2.925 percent, which was the lowest since Jan. 17.

Stocks pulled well back from their session lows but were still down for the day. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 6.72 points, or 0.03 percent, to 20,651.3, the S&P 500 lost 3.38 points, or 0.14 percent, to 2,353.78 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 14.15 points, or 0.24 percent, to 5,866.77.

The CBOE Market Volatility index, also known as the fear index, rose 1.02 points and closed at 15.07, its first close above 15 since the Nov. 8 U.S. Presidential election.

The U.S. dollar fell 1.2 percent and nearly touched a five- month low against the Japanese ye

"It shows how nervous markets are about the geopolitical situation," said Marc Chandler, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman. "And at the end of the day the focus on the geopolitical data is coming without much serious economic data."

Gold last traded up 1.5 percent on the day at almost $1,273.55 an ounce. It hit its highest point since Nov. 10 and was on track for its biggest one-day percentage rise since March 15.

Oil reversed course to end the day higher after reports that Saudi Arabia told OPEC officials it wants to continue OPEC cuts for an additional six months. [O/R]

Global benchmark Brent settled up 0.5 percent at $56.23 a barrel in its seventh straight day of gains. U.S. crude settled up for the sixth day in a row with a 0.6 percent rise to $53.40.


(Additional reporting by Richard Leong, Jessica Resnick-Ault and Dion Rabouin in New York and Kit Rees, John Geddie, Ritvik Carvalho and Nigel Stephenson in London; Editing by James Dalgleish and Dan Grebler)