WASHINGTON: The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, pointing to labour market strength that could keep Federal Reserve interest rate hikes on the table this year. Other data on Thursday suggested the struggling manufacturing sector could be stabilising, with factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region contracting at a slower pace in February. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits decreased 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 262,000 for the week ended February 13, the lowest reading since November, the Labour Department said. The prior week’s claims were unrevised.