Jobless claims fell more than expected last week, dragging down a closely watched moving average to a more than 2-1/2-year low in a sign the labor market was gradually healing.

First-time applications for jobless aid dropped to 391,000 in the week ended February 19, down from 413,000 a week earlier, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

The four-week moving average of claims, which smooths out volatility, dropped to 402,000, the lowest since mid-2008, before the financial crisis took a turn for the worse.

Claims have been bouncing around 400,000 for several weeks, having retreated sharply from peaks above 650,000 seen in early 2009. While the level of claims still suggests labor market strains, economists found the break below 400,000 encouraging.

It is consistent with our belief that we are going to see a very strong gain in non-farm payrolls. We are putting a number on that around plus 230,000 and it might go higher before we finalize it this week, said David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities International in New York.

The government issues its report on February employment on March 4. An early Reuters poll found economists looking for an increase in non-farm payrolls of 160,000 after an anemic increase of 36,000 jobs in January.

The claims report showed the number of Americans remaining on the jobless rolls after an initial week of benefits declined by 145,000 to 3.79 million in the week ended February 12.

The total number of overall benefit recipients, including those receiving assistance under an emergency federal program, edged down in the February 5 week, the latest for which data is available, but remained around 9.2 million.

The U.S. unemployment rate fell sharply in the last two months to 9.0 percent, an encouraging sign that a long-dormant job market was coming back to life. However, hiring has remained anemic, and analysts worry about the impact of renewed spikes in oil prices on the ability of U.S. firms to commit to new investments.

(Reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)