Stock index futures rose on Thursday on upbeat sentiment after surprisingly strong data on jobs creation suggested the world's biggest economy was on a solid path to recovery.

The focus will be on the initial jobless claims report, expected at 8:30 a.m. EST and forecast to show an increase to 400,000 applications, up from 388,000 in the previous week.

After hitting a high near 1,278 on Wednesday and on the heels of better economic data, the S&P 500 faces resistance in the 1,300-1,325 area according to Paul Mendelsohn, chief investment strategist at Windham Financial Services in Charlotte, Vermont.

The jobless claims will come a day after a report showing private employers added a surprising 297,000 jobs in December, which prompted economists to raise forecasts for the widely followed government payrolls numbers expected Friday.

Mendelsohn said jobless claims could rise as forecast without doing too much damage to the equities market. That would mean the trend is still positive. Friday's number is going to be critical and that's what the market is really gearing up for, he said.

S&P 500 futures rose 4 points and were above fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures gained 34 points and Nasdaq 100 futures added 8 points.

In a note Wednesday, Citigroup said it expected 2011 to be a year of strong but uneven global growth and upgraded U.S. equities to neutral.

Several top U.S. retailers missed Wall Street's high expectations for December sales as a paralyzing post-Christmas blizzard slowed a two-month shopping spree. Still, Costco Wholesale Corp posted a 6 percent rise in same-store sales.

U.S.-traded shares of BP Plc and Transocean Ltd shrugged off a scathing report from a U.S. presidential panel that blamed the worst-ever U.S. oil spill on risky company decisions. BP rose 2.1 percent to $47.48 and Transocean gained 1 percent to $74.

The surge in new private-sector jobs, nearly three times the forecast, turned Wall Street's early losses into gains on Wednesday. Financial shares led the way as the Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> added 0.3 percent, the Standard & Poor's 500 <.SPX> rose 0.5 percent, and the Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 0.8 percent.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)