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January 2, 2008

Millions celebrate, as bombs and security fears cloud New Year


January 2, 2008

NEW YORK: Millions staged parties at iconic landmarks around the world to bid farewell to 2007 and ring in 2008, although bomb attacks and security fears darkened some New Year festivities. In New York, hundreds of thousands of revellers crowded fabled Times Square, braving cold temperatures and stringent security measures to see Mayor Michael Bloomberg release the New Year’s Eve ball on its 100th lowering, with a dazzling display of new environmentally friendly lights.

Bloomberg released the ball at one minute to midnight, setting off the center piece of New Year celebrations in the United States on its 60-second slide down a 23.5-meter flagpole. The festivities were witnessed on television by some one billion people around the world.

In Canada, tens of thousands of people spilled onto the streets of Quebec to toast the start of 2008, which also marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Francophone city by explorer Samuel de Champlain. Hours earlier, more than one million people lined Sydney harbour for fireworks which set off the global party. Hundreds of thousands packed Hong Kong streets and historic European venues such as the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and the Champs Elysees in Paris.

An estimated 700,000 people were out on the damp London streets and crammed on riverbanks to watch the 10-minute fireworks display on the Thames, which focused on the giant London Eye observation wheel, police said.

“It’s amazing to be in one of the world’s most vibrant cities on a night like this, when the whole of London is just out having fun,” said Londoner James O’Shea, 32, who arrived three hours early to secure a good spot. But bombs planted by suspected separatist rebels at discos and other entertainment centres rocked Thailand’s troubled south as revelry was at its peak, killing one person and injuring dozens, police said. Bombs in the Thai capital at the last New Year’s party killed three people.

Belgian authorities cancelled a traditional fireworks show in Brussels as the country went on maximum alert over possible terror threats. French authorities put 13,000 police on the streets of Paris and its troubled suburbs to deter any repeat of riots last month. Youths still hurled cans at the car of Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie as she toured potential trouble spots.

But an estimated 400,000 French and foreign visitors still turned the Champs Elysees into a mass of car-honking festivities. Even more people — around one million according to police — packed streets around Germany’s Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

The giant steel archway of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was again the centrepiece of the traditional display in Australia’s main city, with a giant neon hourglass illustrating the theme of time passing.

Thousands in Hong Kong ignored unusually chilly temperatures to see the fireworks in Victoria Harbour. In the northern Chinese city of Harbin, tourists strolled through a display of ice structures and some toasted the New Year in a bar made from ice blocks. In Japan, thousands of people gathered at the Yasukuni shrine and other prayer sites to throw coins as midnight struck. Each addressed a small prayer to the country’s ancestral gods by twice clapping their hands under a clear winter sky.

In Iraq, crowds surged into the streets of strife-torn Baghdad, shooting firecrackers and weapons and dancing in a rare moment of freedom from daily violence that has recently eased encouraging inhabitants to be more daring.

World leaders used the New Year to get their messages across.

In China — set to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — President Hu Jintao called for world peace and development in his New Year address. “We sincerely hope people of all nations live under the same blue sky freely, equally, harmoniously and happily, and enjoy the achievements in peace and development of the humankind,” Hu said, according to Xinhua news agency.

As tens of thousands of people flocked to Moscow’s Red Square, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin used his final New Year address as president to congratulate Russians on a “national renaissance” driven by “colossal resources,” in a pre-recorded broadcast.

Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in a statement read by a television commentator, said Cubans could feel “proud” of having resisted US pressures for so long.

“In the approaching dawn we will have left behind the 49th year of our revolution and entered the 50th year that will symbolise half a century of heroic resistance,” said Castro, who on July 2006 relinquished power to his brother Raul, after undergoing a gastrointestinal operation.

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