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    PERTH, Dec 19 AAP - Gold stocks continued to sparkle on the
    Australian Stock Exchange today as the precious metal edged
    tantalisingly close to $US350 an ounce.
    At 1556, the Sydney bullion gold price was $US349 an ounce, up
    $US3.00 from its opening price of $US346 and $US11.55 higher than
    yesterday's close of $US337.45.
    The rising price sparked enthusiasm for local gold stocks with
    Australia's biggest gold miner, Melbourne-based Newcrest Mining
    leading the charge.
    Newcrest has surged 21 cents to $7.03 while Lihir Gold Ltd was
    four cents firmer at $1.38.
    Kalgoorlie gold miner Croesus Mining NL was two cents up at 89
    Gold's extended rally followed a sharp rise in New York
    overnight which saw COMEX February gold settle up $US4.70 at
    $342.70, 30 cents below Tuesday's peak of $343, the highest for a
    benchmark contract since June 1997.
    Analysts said today speculators and investors were continuing to
    build a "war premium" into the gold price as fear of war in the
    Middle East mounted amid speculation the US could declare Iraq in
    violation of the United Nations disarmament resolution.
    The gold price was also benefiting from a weaker US dollar
    weighed down by concerns about Iraq.
    The gold price which is historically regarded as a safe haven
    from political and economic turmoil.
    "It's a combination of political tension and uncertainty in the
    Middle East and also weakness in the US dollar," Daiwa Securities
    resources analyst Mark Pervan said, adding the US dollar was the
    biggest factor contributing to the extended gold price rally.

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