* 12-mth CPI to March drops below cbank target range ceiling * Economic activity expands 6.1 pct in Feb yr/yr * March CPI, IMACEC to likely support cbank's rate hold stance By Antonio De la Jara and Anthony Esposito SANTIAGO, April 5 (Reuters) - Chilean inflation eased in March and economic activity was firm in February, data showed on Thursday, suggesting the central bank will hold its key rate at 5.0 percent in the coming months. Chile's consumer price index rose 0.2 percent in March, the government statistics agency said, coming in significantly below expectations for a 0.5 percent increase, as higher prices for food and school-related goods were somewhat offset by a drop in transport costs. Chile's economic activity grew 0.1 percent in February from January, led by gains in retail, manufacturing and mining, and rose 6.1 percent in February year-over-year, coming in below market expectations for 6.4 percent growth. "The very favorable March inflation report and solid but not overly exuberant expansion of the economy are likely to keep the central bank on hold for the foreseeable future," said Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos in a note to clients. The Chilean peso weakened on Thursday morning after the CPI data, as a higher inflation rate in March likely would have increased pressure on the monetary authority for a rate increase in the world's top copper producer. The central bank cut rates in January, the first reduction in 2-1/2 years, on fears that slowing global demand would hit the export-dependent country, but the slowdown in Chile has so far been softer than expected. "Important risk scenarios remain," bank president Vergara said in a presentation on Thursday, emphasizing the string of stronger-than-expected economic data was insufficient to indicate Chile had dodged a sharp slowdown. Vergara said the bank isn't contemplating intervening in the local foreign exchange market, as it did last year to tame a strong peso, and said frictions there had eased. The rate is now at levels neutral to the economy, he said, though the market sees rates increasing by year-end on an uptick in inflation in December and February and a healthier global economic outlook. Chile's central bank on Tuesday raised its 2012 economic growth forecast to between 4.0 percent and 5.0 percent from 3.75 percent and 4.75 percent and raised its inflation view to 3.5 percent from 2.7 percent. Core CPI did not register changes in March, and inflation in the 12 months to March was 3.8 percent, retreating below the 4.0 percent ceiling of the central bank's tolerance range for the first time since November. Inflation in Brazil and Colombia also slowed in March, data showed on Thursday. Chile's February IMACEC data marks the second consecutive month the seasonally-adjusted growth rate for economic activity slowed from the previous month. Chile's economy grew 0.3 percent in January from December, the central bank has said, and grew 1.3 percent in December from November. The central bank calculates its month-on-month IMACEC data in seasonally adjusted terms. The monthly IMACEC measures more than 90 percent of the components comprising Chile's gross domestic product, which is published quarterly.