Stocks rose on Thursday, extending this year's near-uninterrupted rally as investors jumped on recent momentum, though equities eased from session highs after a weak reading on manufacturing.

Some strong February chain-store sales along with encouraging labor market data boosted optimism, with nine of ten S&P sectors in positive territory.

The day's rise is purely a momentum move, and when you have positive momentum in place, investors will ignore numbers that don't fit in with the theme, said Steve Sosnick, equity risk manager at Timber Hill/Interactive Brokers Group in Greenwich, Connecticut.

U.S. jobless claims fell by 2,000 to 351,000 in the latest week, holding near four-year lows, but the pace of growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector unexpectedly slowed in February, according to the Institute for Supply Management.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 42.57 points, or 0.33 percent, at 12,994.64. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 6.20 points, or 0.45 percent, at 1,371.88. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 15.50 points, or 0.52 percent, at 2,982.39.

The S&P 500 has risen more than 9 percent so far this year, but much of the gain has come on light trading volume, and the rally was vulnerable.

While the Dow closed above 13,000 for the first time since May 2008 earlier this week, it has struggled to maintain that level.

We're in a good spot for a little break right now, said Paul Nolte, managing director at Dearborn Partners in Chicago, who added that a pullback would allow stocks to subsequently rebound higher.

Many retail shares rallied on stronger-than-expected February sales. Gap Inc climbed 7.7 percent to $25.15 while Buckle Inc gained 6.7 percent to $47.91. Target Corp fell 0.5 percent to $56.41. The S&P retail index <.RLX> edged up 0.1 percent.

Ford Motor Co rose 1.7 percent to $12.59 after the automaker reported that U.S. February sales increased 14 percent. General Motors Co was up 1.8 percent to $26.49.

European shares <.FTEU3> advanced nearly 1 percent on hopes that the European Central Bank's pumping 530 billion euros of cash into the banking system would ease the region's financial crisis.

U.S.-listed shares of Barclays Plc rose 2.8 percent to $16 while HSBC Holding Plc added 1.9 percent to $45.24.

(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)