The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose less than expected last week and remained near its pre-recession levels, offering further evidence of the economy's underlying strength.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits ticked up 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 304,000 for the week ended April 12, the Labor Department said on Thursday. They stayed close to a 6-1/2 year low touched the prior week.

Claims for the week ended April 5 were revised to show 2,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast first-time applications for jobless benefits rising to 315,000.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of underlying labor market conditions as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 4,750 to 312,000, the lowest level since October 2007.

A Labor Department analyst said no states were estimated and there were no special factors influencing the state level data.

The claims data covered the survey week for April nonfarm payrolls. Despite last week's increase, claims were down 19,000 between the March and April survey periods, which suggests an acceleration in job growth.

Job growth averaged about 195,000 per month in February and March, with the unemployment rate holding at near a five-year low of 6.7 percent over that period.

Labor market indicators such as job openings, the duration of unemployment and short-term unemployment, suggest some tightening in conditions.

The health of the labor market will most likely determine when the Federal Reserve will start raising benchmark interest rates, which it has kept near zero since December 2008.

The Fed is expected to wind up its monthly bond buying program later this year and most economists expect the first rate hike will be in the second half of 2015.

The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 11,000 to 2.74 million in the week ended April 5. That was the lowest level since December 2007. (