* US services, private employment data raises stimulus debate
* Early gains in gold vanish as ECB pledges low rates
* Chinese gold imports from Hong Kong rise in July (Updates prices, adds comment)
By Barani Krishnan and Jan Harvey
NEW YORK/LONDON, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Gold sank almost 2 percent to two-week lows on Thursday as upbeat U.S. economic data heightened expectations the U.S. Federal Reserve may soon rein in its massive stimulus program that has bolstered bullion prices.
The European Central Bank’s pledge to keep interest rates low reversed early gains in bullion, while a lack of progress in any U.S. military action against Syria further weighed on the precious metal’s safe-haven status.
Selling in gold accelerated and pushed prices down to $1,364.91 an ounce, their lowest level since Aug. 22, after data showed growth in the U.S. services sector accelerated in August to its fastest pace in almost eight years.
That came on top of news that private employers added 176,000 jobs in August and new claims for jobless benefits fell to a near five-year low last week.
Those numbers suggested the labor market - a key for Fed decisions - is in a slow-but-steady recovery and the central bank may be convinced to trim its monthly purchases of $85 billion in Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities.
Official U.S. jobs data for August is due on Friday.
By 4:00 p.m. EDT (2000 GMT), the spot price of gold was down 1.6 percent at $1,368.01 an ounce, adding to Wednesday’s 1.5 percent drop.
U.S. gold futures for December delivery settled down $17, or 1.2 percent, at $1,373 an ounce.
“I think gold really took a hit on today’s economic data,” said David Lee, vice president of trading at Heraeus Precious Metals Management.
“The possibility of Fed stimulus tapering starting in September, or even by December, is really a concern now with the better services sector and preliminary jobs reading for August.”
This year’s 15 percent drop in gold has been driven largely by speculation the Fed will start reducing its stimulus program with an announcement at its Sept 17-18 meeting.
“Everyone is trying to pre-judge what the Fed might do,” Citi analyst David Wilson said. “So, if the employment numbers are better than expected it will heighten the sense that tapering will be sooner rather than later, and the reverse if the data’s below expectations.”
Safe-haven buying that took gold to 3-1/2 month highs last week has also waned on reduced expectations over a U.S.-led military strike against Syria after last month’s chemical weapons attack on civilians in that country.
Hong Kong’s gold exports to China rose to 129.232 tonnes in July from 111.718 tonnes in June, data from the Hong Kong government showed on Thursday.
Silver was down 1.1 percent to $23.18 an ounce, while spot platinum was down about 1 percent to $1,479.24 an ounce. Spot palladium was down 1.6 percent at $684.47 an ounce.
Platinum miners in South Africa, the source of three-quarters of world platinum supply, are watching the progress of pay negotiations in the gold sector.
Shares of South African gold producers rose more than 4 percent on Thursday as investors bet unions and management would soon reach an agreement over wages, ending a strike by tens of thousands of miners.
“The more compromising tone struck by the (National Union of Mineworkers) seemed to have had more impact on platinum, in terms of bringing prices down by nearly 3 percent in yesterday’s trading, as opposed to gold, which fell only 1.5 percent,” Mitsubishi analyst Jonathan Butler said. (Reporting by Barani Krishnan and Josephine Mason in New York; Editing by William Hardy, Chris Reese and Jim Marshall)