* Nickel up more than 20 pct year to date
* China copper imports jump 10.8 pct y/y in March
* Dovish Fed comments support aluminium, other metals (Updates with closing prices)
By Harpreet Bhal and Eric Onstad
LONDON, April 10 (Reuters) - Nickel prices touched their highest in more than a year on Thursday as speculators continued a trend of buying futures on concerns about the potential for shortages following a ban on ore exports from Indonesia.
Other industrial metals made gains, including aluminium, which surged to a five-month peak, on prospects that U.S. interest rates would not rise as soon as previously thought.
Three month nickel on the London Metal Exchange (LME) reached a session high of $17,226 a tonne, its strongest since March 15 last year, and closed up 2.3 percent at $17,080.
Prices have risen 23 percent so far this year, making nickel the best performer in the base metals complex, supported by a ban on shipments of unprocessed ore by top exporter Indonesia.
“We expect the market to be in a small surplus this year and move into a significant deficit next year if Indonesia holds its course,” said Nic Brown, head of commodities research at Natixis.
“But beyond that, in 2016 we are going to get more processing plants up and running (in Indonesia), so the shortage could be temporary.”
A 25 percent rise in LME open interest in nickel suggests long speculative positions have been added, while technical buying and short-covering have also spurred price rises, analyst Leon Westgate at Standard Bank said.
Seeking to reap more benefits from its mineral wealth by pushing domestic processing, Indonesia in January banned exports of nickel ore, which is used by stainless steel producers in China as a cheaper alternative to refined nickel.
Reduced supply of nickel pig iron could mean that China increases its use of the higher-grade refined metal, underpinning global prices.
“We have seen very good nickel buying here today,” said one trader in Singapore. The trader said buying was coming from China, while other funds, which had been long nickel, were taking profits.
Base metals were supported by minutes of the Federal Reserve’s March meeting, which suggested U.S. policymakers would be more cautious about raising interest rates than some analysts had expected.
The Fed minutes also dented the dollar, which fell to a three-week low against a basket of currencies, further supporting commodities priced in dollars, making them cheaper to buy for consumers outside of the United States.
Sentiment also got a boost from data on Thursday showing U.S. jobless claims fell to a seven-year low.
Aluminium was a top gainer, climbing to a high of$1,895.75 a tonne, the strongest since Oct. 30 last year, before paring gains to close at $1,893, a 1.93 percent rise.
“Dovish comments from the Fed, particularly in reference to interest rates, should help support prices and premia in respect to keeping the financing game ticking over,” Westgate said in a note.
Copper prices closed up 0.57 percent at $6,655 a tonne, bouncing off a two-week low hit in the previous session.
China’s overall exports unexpectedly fell for a second straight month in March, and import growth dropped sharply, intensifying concerns about weak manufacturing and slowing growth in the world’s second-largest economy.
China’s imports of copper, however, rose 10.8 percent in March from February on expectations of increased seasonal demand through the second quarter, although shipments were still well off a record high hit in January.
“We think that in the second half of the year, there’s going to be less copper going into China and more copper coming out of China,” Brown said. “Chinese bonded warehouse stocks have pushed up close to their recent highs. That means there is going to be a limited amount of copper coming into the country in coming months.”
Copper prices are down about 10 percent so far this year but have recovered by around 5 percent from 3-1/2-year lows plumbed on March 19.
Zinc ended 0.9 percent higher at $2,040 a tonne, while lead finished up 1.1 percent at $2,112, and tin edged up 0.62 percent to $23,400.
Three month LME copper
Most active ShFE copper
Three month LME aluminium
Most active ShFE aluminium
Three month LME zinc
Most active ShFE zinc
Three month LME lead
Most active ShFE lead
Three month LME nickel
Three month LME tin (Additional reporting by Melanie Burton in Sydney; editing by Keiron Henderson and Jane Baird)