The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week to 303,000, the highest level since the start of the year, a government report showed on Thursday.

The 8,000 increase in initial claims for jobless aid in the week ended March 4 took them above 300,000 for the first time since the Jan. 7 week, the Labor Department said.

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Wall Street economists had expected claims to dip to 290,000 last week from the 294,000 initially reported for week ended Feb. 25.

The increase pushed the four-week moving average of claims, which smooths weekly volatility to provide a better picture of underlying trends, up by 6,250 to 293,500 -- a level economists still associate with a healthy job market.

The report also showed the number of people still on the benefit rolls after receiving an initial week of aid rose 29,000 to 2.51 million in the week ended Feb. 25, the latest week for which figures are available.

The low level of jobless claims is one factor forecasters have said suggests solid U.S. job growth.

The department releases its closely watched monthly report on employment on Friday.

Economists except that report to show about 210,000 new jobs were created last month, up from 193,000 in January. They expected the unemployment rate to hold steady at a 4-1/2 year low of 4.7 percent.

Federal Reserve officials are watching the job market closely for any sign that tightening conditions may be leading to a troubling rise in wage-related price pressures.

Fed policy-makers gather on March 27-28 and are widely expected to push overnight borrowing costs up by a quarter-percentage point to 4.75 percent, a 15th straight increase in a string dating to June 2004, as they seek to avert rising inflation.