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More people sought unemployment aid last week

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week. But the rise comes after applications hit their lowest level in nearly three years, and economists expect further declines as the economy improves.

Applications increased by 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 397,000 during the week ended March 5, the Labor Department said today.

The latest report covers the week after the Presidents Day holiday, when many government offices were closed. Applications usually rise in weeks following holiday-shortened weeks.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose to 392,250. The average fell to its lowest level since July 2008 two weeks ago.

Applications below 425,000 signal modest job growth. But they need to fall consistently below 375,000 to signal a sustained decline in the unemployment rate. Unemployment benefit applications peaked during the recession at 651,000.

Economists were encouraged that claims remained below 400,000 for the third straight week.

"We still interpret the data as consistent with strengthening job creation," said John Ryding, an economist at RDQ Economics.