China's consumer price index (CPI) rose 3.9% in February from a year earlier, picking up far more sharply than expected after a slowdown in January, official data showed today.

Prices in urban areas rose 3.6% year-on-year while rural CPI was up 4.5%, the National Bureau of Statistics said. In January, prices rose only 1.9% as inflation progressively cooled from the high of 5.3% seen in the middle of 2004.

Economists had forecast a rise in CPI of 2.2%, with a consensus of analysts looking at a gain of 2.3%.

Food prices, which make up about one third of China's inflation index, rose 8.8% in February, while non-food items were up 1.4%, the NBS said. However, it said the sharp gains in February could not be compared to last year as the Lunar New Year holiday fell in January in 2004 and in February this year.

Analysts acknowledged the impact of the holiday on prices but said the robust rise for the month would renew pressure on authorities for a new round of tightening measures to peg back China's runaway growth.

Policy makers raised interest rates by 27 basis points to 5.58% in October, the first such increase in nearly a decade as inflation hit seven-year highs in July and August.

The move was one in a series of administrative measures aimed at preventing an inflationary crisis, while braking the runaway pace of the Chinese economy, which expanded by an eight-year high of 9.5% last year.