The number of Americans claiming initial jobless benefits fell unexpectedly by 2,000 last week to the lowest level in more than four years as the U.S. labor market continued to strengthen, a government report showed on Thursday.

First-time claims for state unemployment insurance aid dropped for the third consecutive time, to 302,000, in the week ended Feb. 12 from 304,000 in the previous week, the Labor Department (search) said. It said there were no special factors to account for the drop in claims.

Last week's decline marks the lowest level since October 2000, before the economy tipped into recession.

Wall Street economists had expected a rise in claims to 315,000. The surprise fall is likely to boost analyst expectations for February's broader payroll report (search), which surveys employers at the same time of the month as last week's jobless claims report.

The payrolls report, due out in March, is compiled in the pay period which contains the 12th day of the month.

The closely watched four-week moving average, which smooths weekly volatility in claims, also fell, to 311,750, down 4,000 from the previous week.

Continued claims, a measure of the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of assistance, fell 14,000 to 2.72 million in the week ended Feb. 5, the latest period for which the data is available.