(Corrects fifth paragraph to show copper price hit lowest since July 2010, not July 2012)
* EPL Oil to be acquired by Energy XXI for $2.3 bln
* Retailer Express slumps after outlook
* Indexes down: Dow 0.09 pct, S&P 0.12 pct, Nasdaq 0.15 pct
By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK, March 12 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were little changed on Wednesday, as equities recouped much of their earlier declines amid signs of progress in diplomatic attempts to ease tensions surrounding Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday ahead of a referendum Sunday on whether the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula will join Russia or go independent.
“People are just kind of reassessing, they are looking at that headline and thinking maybe it is not going to turn out to be a disaster in Russia and Ukraine,” said Ken Polcari, Director of the NYSE floor division at O‘Neil Securities in New York.
“It’s good they are talking and it’s good Kerry is going to do it before the weekend - if they do something on Friday to allay any fear over the weekend, that is a positive.”
Stocks had fallen earlier in the session on concerns about a weakening economy in China. London copper, seen as a proxy for China’s economic health, rebounded after hitting its lowest level since July 2010.
Geopolitical developments have moved to the forefront this week as a dearth of fresh corporate results and economic data offered no catalysts to push the benchmark S&P index above its most recent record close on Friday.
“We’ve climbed so far, to continue to climb is definitely going to be a see-saw move,” said Rick Meckler, president of LibertyView Capital Management in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Ukraine’s government appealed for Western help on Tuesday to stop Moscow annexing Crimea, but the Black Sea peninsula, overrun by Russian troops, seemed fixed on a course that could formalize rule from Moscow within days.
EU member states have agreed the wording of sanctions on Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes against those responsible for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 14.54 points, or 0.09 percent, to 16,336.71, the S&P 500 lost 2.16 points, or 0.12 percent, to 1,865.47 and the Nasdaq Composite added 6.291 points, or 0.15 percent, to 4,313.478.
EPL Oil & Gas Inc jumped 29.4 percent to $37.65 after the company agreed to be acquired by larger rival Energy XXI Ltd for $2.3 billion, including debt. Energy XXI shares lost 6.3 percent to $21.90.
Express Inc dropped 11.3 percent to $16.18 after the apparel retailer reported fourth-quarter earnings and forecast a profit for the current quarter that fell far short of analyst expectations.
Oxigene Inc surged 103.7 percent to $4.93. The company said its experimental drug Zybrestat, combined with Roche’s cancer drug Avastin, significantly slowed progression of recurrent ovarian cancer better than Avastin alone in a midstage clinical trial.
Geron Corp plunged 63.2 percent to $1.82. The company said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered a halt to trials of its cancer drug imetelstat over concerns about potential liver damage. (Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)