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The pace of U.S. job losses slowed sharply last month, the strongest sign to date that the recession is diminishing, even as the unemployment rate hit its highest in nearly 26 years.

The Labor Department said on Friday that U.S. employers cut 345,000 jobs in May, the fewest since September and far less than economists had forecast, after slicing 504,000 in April.

The unemployment rate raced to 9.4 percent, however, the highest since July 1983, from 8.9 percent in April, partly reflecting a surge in people entering the labor force.

"It keeps hopes alive for a full recovery in the U.S. economy by the second half. It's a step in the right direction," said John Canally, investment strategist and economist for LPL Financial in Boston.

U.S. stocks .SPX pushed higher on the data, while bond prices <US10YT=RR> fell and the dollar .DXY rose on the view the Federal Reserve -- the U.S. central bank -- may need to begin withdrawing its extraordinary monetary support for the recession-pummeled economy before year-end.

The relatively small decline in payrolls, which beat market expectations for a 520,000 drop, sparked rumors in financial markets that the government had published incorrect figures, but Labor Secretary Hilda Solis dismissed the rumors as false.

The U.S. economic recession, now in its 18th month, is the longest since the Great Depression and has wiped out six million jobs. March and April data were revised to show 82,000 fewer jobs were lost in those months than previously reported.

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