* C$ slides to $1.0083, return to parity in view
* Safe-haven bid pushes bonds higher as equities volatile
* Fears rise that Japan nuclear crisis is out of control (Updates to close)
TORONTO, March 16 (Reuters) - The Canadian dollardropped against the U.S. currency for a third straight session on Wednesday, trapped in a global rush to the exits from risky assets sparked by the nuclear crisis in Japan.
North American equity markets tumbled, with a drop of about 2 percent across major U.S. stock indexes, as news reports about Japan's crisis grew darker and deepened investor fears. The same news sparked a surge into the safety of government bonds, including Canada's.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said the situation at Japan's stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was "very serious". Workers withdrew briefly from the plant because of surging radiation levels and a helicopter failed to drop water on the most troubled reactor. [ID:nLDE72E24B] [ID:nWEA9026]
"Equities are bailing and the global backdrop is speaking to a risk-off environment. The events that are transpiring and unfolding in Japan are the catalysts for much of the price action in currencies," said Jack Spitz, managing director of foreign exchange at National Bank of Canada.
"The Canadian dollar will underperform in a market environment that speaks to risk aversion. Today is no different. The headlines are that much bolder these days."
He said there was a major flight to traditional safe-haven currencies, including the U.S. dollar, the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen.
The Canadian dollar fell as low as C$0.9968 to the U.S. dollar, or $1.0032, and was within 6 ticks of the 4-1/2 week low it hit on Tuesday, when it fell 2-1/2 cents before paring losses. Just last week, the currency was trading at its highest level in more than three years: C$0.9684 to the U.S. dollar, or $1.0326.
It finished at C$0.9918 to the U.S. dollar, or $1.0083, on Wednesday, down from Tuesday's close of C$0.9840 to the U.S. dollar, or $1.0163.
Trouble in Bahrain and concerns about euro zone debt weighed on risk sentiment, but sent oil prices 2 percent higher and gave minor support to the commodity-linked Canadian dollar.
"All the attention has been on Japan and the nuclear reactors, but at the same time, you can't take your eye off what is happening in the Middle East," said John Kurgan, senior market strategist at Lind-Waldock Canada.
"If oil should for whatever reason...shoot up, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Canadian dollar strengthen here too."
But some currency watchers said Japan's earthquake and unfolding radiation disaster could drive Canada's currency below parity with the greenback in the near term, for the first time since Feb. 1, as investors dump assets tied most closely to global economic growth. [ID:nN15236117]
As part of Wednesday's safe-haven bid, investors rushed to U.S. Treasuries. Canadian government bonds also rose, but mostly underperformed except in the short-dated issues.
The two-year Canadian government bondsoared 17 Canadian cents to yield 1.541 percent, while the 10-year bond advanced 47 Canadian cents to yield 3.145 percent.
Earlier, Canadian manufacturing sales data showed a much greater-than-expected 4.5 percent jump in January from December. It was a bright spot following a spate of soft Canadian data that has helped scale back expectations of any interest rate hikes before midyear. [ID:nN16104517]
The data didn't stay long at the forefront of market attention, however.
"I don't think interest rates are really something investors are looking at right now," Kurgan said. (Reporting by Ka Yan Ng; editing by Peter Galloway)
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