New claims for US unemployment benefits fell last week for the third week in a row, signaling continuing improvement in the troubled jobs market, Labor Department data released Thursday showed.

Jobless claims, an indicator of the pace of layoffs across the country, totaled 332,000 in the week ending March 9, a drop of 10,000 from the prior week's revised number, the department said.

Last week's reading was the lowest since January 19, when jobless claims hit a five-year low.

The decline surprised analysts who on average expected claims to rise to 350,000.

It pulled the four-week moving average of claims to 346,750, a drop of 2,750 from the previous week's revised average.

The jobs market has been showing slow signs of improvement recently. In February, job growth accelerated and the unemployment rate dipped two-tenths a percentage point to 7.7 percent, its weakest level since December 2008.