US employment swelled for a second straight month in April with employers adding 288,000 more jobs to payrolls for the strongest two-month gain in four years, the Labour Department said on Friday.

The surge in April hiring handily outstripped economists' forecasts and followed an upwardly revised 337,000 job gain in March.

The national unemployment rate fell to 5.6% in April from 5.7% in March.

Continued gains in hiring may take some sting from charges by prospective Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that Bush has presided over such huge job losses that he should be replaced in November's election.

Bush remains on track to be the first president since the Great Depression to have a net loss of jobs at the end of his term but April's gains cut that tally to about 1.5 million and it may shrink further in coming months.

Market worries

Meanwhile, stocks extended their losses on Friday amid concerns about surging oil prices and worries that the strong report on the job market means the Federal Reserve may hike interest rates as early as next month.

Interest rate-sensitive sectors like car makers, home builders and financial services companies fell sharply.

In New York, the June crude oil futures contract settled at $39.93 after jumping to $40 a barrel Friday morning - the highest level for the leading contract since the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, as the violence in the Middle East raised fears over sabotage and supply disruptions.

"High oil prices are on everyone's radar screen. It's a big concern and it's not good for consumers," said Stephen Massocca, head of trading at Pacific Growth Equities in San Francisco.