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    US Jobless Benefit Claims Drop to Four-Year Low

    The U.S. says new claims for unemployment benefits matched a four-year low last week, a new signal that the labor market is improving in the world's largest economy.

    The government said Thursday that 351,000 jobless workers made initial claims for unemployment compensation - 14,000 fewer than the week before. The requests for assistance were at the same level a month ago, and were the lowest figures since March 2008.

    Nearly 13 million U.S. workers remain unemployed, but businesses have slowed the number of layoffs as the country's economy steadily recovers from its worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. U.S. employers have hired 1.2 million workers in the last six months, the best half-year job growth total since 2006.

    The improving labor market in the U.S. contrasts markedly with that in the eurozone. European Union officials said Thursday the number of employed workers in the 17-nation euro currency bloc fell two-tenths of a percent in the last three months of 2011, after shrinking the same percentage in the third quarter.

    European employment contracted in the last half of 2011 as numerous governments embarked on sharp austerity programs as they struggled to cope with the continent's debt crisis.

    The European Union said unemployment is reaching critical levels in southern Europe. The EU said nearly a quarter of Spain's working population is jobless, while the labor market is also showing little signs of improvement in debt-ridden Greece and Portugal.   

    The state of the U.S. economy - especially the unemployment rate and job growth - is the focal point of the country's presidential election campaign. President Barack Obama, a Democrat seeking a new four-year term in November's national election, has cited the recent increased hiring as a sign of the country's improving economic fortunes.

    But his chief Republican opponents - one-time venture capitalist Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich - have all sharply attacked Obama's handling of the U.S. economy. They say his policies have weakened the recovery and also led to sharply rising gasoline prices.   

    Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.

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