UPDATE 1-Changing course after nine years, Czechs lift interest rates

* Czech central bank raises main rate to 0.25 pct, from 0.05 pct

* Analysts were split 50-50 on chances of hike

* Strong economy warranted hike, loose ECB policy spoke against

* Crown firms 0.6 percent to new post-cap high

* News conference due at 2:15 p.m. (1215 GMT) (Releads with decision, adds market reaction)

PRAGUE, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Czech policymakers delivered their first interest rate hike since 2008 on Thursday, becoming the first European Union central bank to embark on a new tightening cycle in more than five years.

The move reflects a growing desire among central banks to move away from post-financial crisis ultra-loose monetary policy. Most -- including the Bank of England on Thursday -- have been unable to do so yet given uncertainty about growth and inflation.

But backed by their growing economy and above-target inflation, the Czech National Bank's board voted to raise the key two-week repo rate to 0.25 percent, from 0.05 percent where it had been since November 2012.

A Reuters poll had suggested it could rise to 0.15 percent.

The crown strengthened to 25.940 to the euro, up 0.6 percent on the day. It has gained 4 percent since the central bank abandoned a currency cap at around 27 per euro in April, its first step to normalising policy.

The bank had signalled in June a third-quarter rate hike was possible but markets had been split on how soon policymakers would move, with half of analysts in a Reuters poll expecting a hike on Thursday.

Sceptics had said the bank would wait mainly because a hike could firm the exchange rate too much and make Czech assets even more attractive to euro-based investors at a time when the European Central Bank is still buying assets and keeping a negative deposit rate.

The Czech rate hike was the first major move on a tightening path in this economic cycle in the EU. The last significant hike was Poland in May 2012, although Denmark cosmetically raised its main rate in January last year to maintain an exchange rate peg to the euro but has stood still since at -0.65 percent.

(Editing by Jason Hovet/Jeremy Gaunt)