* 12-month CPI to March drops below cenbank target range ceiling * Economic activity expands 6.1 pct in Feb year/year * March CPI, IMACEC likely to support cenbank's rates stance By Antonio De la Jara and Anthony Esposito SANTIAGO, April 5 (Reuters) - Chilean inflation slowed in March and economic activity was firm in February, data showed on Thursday, suggesting the central bank will hold rates in the months ahead as it weighs global economic risks against better-than-expected domestic data. 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 offset somewhat by a drop in transport costs. Meanwhile, economic activity grew 0.1 percent in February from a month earlier, led by gains in retail, manufacturing and mining, and was up 6.1 percent year-over-year, slightly 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," Goldman Sachs economist Alberto Ramos said in a note to clients. Chilean stocks closed higher and the peso ended mildly weaker versus the dollar on Thursday after the CPI data, as a higher inflation rate in March would likely have increased pressure on policymakers for an interest rate hike by the world's top copper producer. All 14 economists and traders polled by Reuters following Thursday's CPI data anticipate rates will be held steady for a third consecutive month in April, and most expect it will be held at least through the first half of the year. The central bank in January cut rates to 5.0 percent, 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," central bank president Rodrigo 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 is not considering intervention in the local foreign exchange market, as it did last year to tame a strong peso, adding that frictions there had abated. The key rate is now at levels neutral to the economy, he said, though some in the market see 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 revised upward 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 held steady in March and inflation in the 12 months to March totaled 3.8 percent, retreating just below the 4.0 percent ceiling of the central bank's tolerance range for the first time since November. Inflation rates in Brazil and Colombia also slowed in March, data showed on Thursday. "There are very few occasions when we can comment on good news in terms of growth and good news in terms of inflation," Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said following the figures' release. "But we haven't won the battle," he added, alluding to lingering external risks to Chile's relatively small and open economy. Under the bank's new methodology to calculate IMACEC, seasonally-adjusted economic activity fell 0.9 percent in January from December, and grew 2.2 percent in December from the month prior. 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.