WASHINGTON -- The number Americans applying for first-time unemployment benefits fell for the third straight week last week, the U.S. Labor Department said. The report provided further signs that the pace of layoffs in the weakened U.S. economy may be declining.

Claims for first-time jobless benefits fell unexpectedly to a seasonally adjusted 384,000 in the week ended Dec. 15 from 395,000 in the prior week, according to the Labor Department announcement. That was the lowest level since the week ended July 28.The data offered a surprise to Wall Street economists, many of whom estimated that initial unemployment claims rose to 430,000 last week.

The four-week average -- considered a more reliable barometer of trends in jobless claims -- fell to 438,000 last week from 450,250 in the Dec. 8 week. That was the lowest level for the average since the week ending Sept. 22.