The JSE kicked off the new month on a downbeat note, as escalating tension in the Ukraine saw investors reduce their equity exposure in favour of safer havens like the US dollar and bullion.

Tension mounted over the weekend when reports emerged that more than 6000 Russian troops had invaded Crimea, a region of eastern Ukraine. The European Union said on Monday in a draft statement that it could impose an arms embargo and other “targeted measures” on Russia if Moscow did not reverse its current actions in Crimea and could also suspend talks on easing the visa process for Russians, Dow Jones Newswires reported.

US officials also threatened to place economic sanctions on Russia and targeted ones against Russian companies, the newswire said.

At 5pm, the all share index was down 0.40% at 47 138.32 points, with the blue-chip top 40 index losing 0.45%

“Risk-aversion dominated trade today, and we were no exception,” Investec Asset Management’s head of equity dealing, Ryan Wibberley said,” referring to SA’s classification as a risky emerging market.

Across international markets, European equities were the hardest hit, given their proximity to the Ukraine, with the German Dax dropping 2.61% by 4.48pm local time.

Meanwhile, US stock markets opened lower, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average having shed 0.70% by 4.59pm local time.

“We’ve seen money rotate into safe haven assets like the dollar, US Treasury’s and gold,” Mr Wibberley said, describing the situation as typical given that geopolitical concerns were high.

Spot gold firmed to a four month intra-day high of $1353.59 on Monday, triggering the 3.43% leap in the gold index. Gold is considered a store of value in times of high geopolitical risk.

Meanwhile the rand hovered around R10.80/$ in late trade, relinquishing much of last’s weeks gains when it reached R10.65/$ on Friday.

According to Mr Wibberley, the rise in the gold price and the weaker rand, which he said had provided a positive underpin to rand hedge stocks, helped the broader market look less severe than it otherwise may have been.

Among individual shares on the JSE, AngloGold Ashanti (ANG) surged 4.11% to R198.38, Sibanye Gold (SGL) jumped 4.89% to R22.74 and Harmony (HAR) increased 2.71% to R35.68

Rand hedge heavyweights did well, with Sasol (SOL) rising 1.44% to R553.96, with gains in the oil company also helped by a firming in Brent crude. Diversified miner Exxaro (EXX) gained 1.73% to R145.50, global breweries giant SAB Miller (SAB) added 0.78% to R523.81 and pharmaceuticals firm Aspen (APN) lifted 1.76% to R277.80.

A general pull-back saw multi-media group Naspers (NPN) retreat 2.22% to R1270 after the stock reached a record R1,340,01 on February 27.

Platinum miners were mixed with Anglo Platinum (AMS) losing 2.07% to R450 and Northam (NHM) shedding 2.65% to R41.10, while Impala (IMP) lifted 0.50% to R114.57.