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MORE SIGN UP FOR JOBLESS BENEFITS: The number of new people signing up for jobless benefits shot up last week. The Labor Department reported Thursday that new applications filed for unemployment insurance jumped by a seasonally adjusted 43,000 to 364,000, the highest level since late September. The over-the-week increase of 43,000 was the most since the end of March 2002.

DISNEY BOARD SEPARATES CHAIRMAN, CEO JOBS: The board of The Walt Disney Co. said Thursday it has amended its corporate governance guidelines to officially separate the offices of chairman and chief executive. In addition, the entertainment giant disclosed that chief executive Michael Eisner had received a $7.35-million cash bonus in 2004. With his salary of $1-million and other compensation, Eisner's total pay package was $8.3-million.

OIL PRICES JUMP 5 PERCENT: Oil prices shot up 5 percent Thursday and closed above $45 a barrel after an early spurt of buying created momentum that forced investors anticipating lower prices to cover their bets. Analysts said there was no single spark that got the rally going. Instead, they suggested that the move higher merely signals the persistent skittishness in the market, stemming from strong demand, tight supplies and fears about instability in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and other key producing nations. Light sweet crude for February delivery soared $2.17 to settle at $45.56 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

INSURANCE BROKER PLEADS GUILTY: An insurance broker at a subsidiary of insurance brokerage giant Marsh & McLennan Cos. pleaded guilty Thursday to criminal charges related to fraud and bid rigging and is expected to cooperate in the broad investigation of industry practices. Robert Stearns, 40, a senior vice president and Marsh Inc. employee for more than 20 years, entered the plea in Manhattan's State Supreme Court to first-degree scheme to defraud, which is punishable by up to four years in prison.

"SOPRANOS' PRODUCER TAKES OVER PARAMOUNT: Talent agent and producer Brad Grey will take over the Paramount Motion Picture Group, succeeding Sherry Lansing who led the studio for 12 years. Grey will become chairman and chief executive of Paramount on or before March 1, Viacom Inc., the media giant that owns Paramount, said. Compensation was not disclosed. Grey, 47, has run the talent agency Brillstein-Grey Entertainment and also produced films and television shows, most notably the HBO series The Sopranos.

MICROSOFT OFFERS FREE SECURITY PROGRAM: Microsoft Corp., whose Windows software is a frequent target for Internet viruses, is offering a free security program to remove the most dangerous infections from computers. The program, with monthly updates, is a step toward plans by Microsoft to sell full-blown antivirus software this year. Microsoft said Thursday consumers can download the new security program from the company's Web site _ www.microsoft.com _ and updated versions will be offered automatically and free each month. It will be available starting Tuesday.

PRITZKER FAMILY SETTLES: The Pritzker family, whose holdings include the Hyatt Hotel chain, has settled a lawsuit brought by two heirs who claimed relatives looted their trust funds and unfairly cut them out of a plan to divide the family fortune, their lawyers said Thursday. Terms were not disclosed.

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