BRUSSELS -- Private business activity across the eurozone hit a four-month low in March as the downturn intensified, a leading growth indicator said on Thursday.

The Purchasing Managers' Index published by London-based Markit fell to 46.5 points in March against 47.9 in February, the flash estimate showed.

The fall marked a quickening rate of contraction of business activity for the second consecutive month and showed the steepest fall in four months.

Manufacturing output fell at the fastest rate since December, business activity in the service sector suffered the steepest fall since October, and new business fell at the sharpest rate in three months.

"The concern is that the downturn has gathered pace again," said Markit's chief economist Chris Williamson.

"Instead of the eurozone economy stabilizing in the second quarter, as many -- including the ECB -- have been hoping to see, the downturn could therefore intensify in coming months."

He added that the situation in Cyprus raised the prospect of a further fall in business and consumer confidence that could drag the PMI indicator down even further in April.

Apart from a slight increase in January, business activity has slid continually since September 2011.

France saw the steepest downturn in business activity since March 2009, and Germany, while enjoying reasonable growth, saw a contraction in manufacturing, raising "worrying signs of growth fading in March," Williamson said.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013