The number of violent crimes reported nationwide dropped last year, even as the number of murders rose for the third year in a row, according to FBI statistics released yesterday.

The FBI said about 1.4 million violent crimes, including murder, robbery and aggravated assault, were reported by police agencies in 2003, a decrease of 3 percent from 2002 and a drop of nearly 26 percent over the past decade. Property crimes, such as burglary and theft, dropped by 0.2 percent in 2003, the FBI said.

The only exception to the downward trend came in the category of murder, which rose 1.7 percent, to 16,503 killings nationwide. Reported murders have increased nearly 6 percent since 2000, according to the FBI.

Yet overall, the latest statistics underscore the continuation of a historic drop in violent crimes and other serious offenses that began in the early 1990s. Although the numbers had increased or leveled off in recent years, the 2003 figures appear to signal a return to a decreasing trend.

The FBI said the falling number of crime reports also translated into declining crime rates, which take population figures into account. The violent crime rate decreased 3.9 percent in 2003, while the property crime rate dropped 1.2 percent, the FBI said.

An annual survey of crime victims by the Justice Department, released in September, also reported a drop in crime rates.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said in a statement that crime rates are at their lowest level in three decades.

"All across our country, law-abiding Americans are enjoying unprecedented safety," Ashcroft said.

The District and its suburbs saw drops in most major crime categories, according to the FBI.

Murders in Washington declined from 264 in 2002 to 248 in 2003, a decline of 6 percent. But there were slight increases in the numbers of rapes and robberies, the FBI said.

The FBI's annual crime report is culled from offense reports from more than 17,000 police agencies across the country. Among other findings released yesterday:

* Violent crime decreased most in cities, dropping 3.9 percent. The same types of crimes dropped 3.7 percent in rural counties and 1 percent in suburban counties.

* Although the total number of arrests increased slightly, the number of arrests for violent crimes dropped 2.3 percent in 2003.

* The number of women arrested in 2003 increased 1.9 percent, continuing a long-term trend. Men still make up 76.8 percent of all arrests, however.

* One out of 10 murder victims were juveniles, and nearly half of murder victims were black, the FBI found.