Sydney leads New Year celebrations

A pulsing heart of red lights shone out from Sydney’s Harbour Bridge as tens of thousands of people gathered to watch fireworks marking the start of the new year, while revellers throughout the world partied, visited places of worship and gathered with families to welcome 2006.

Celebrations across the world were taking place amid tight security as cities such as Sydney and Paris feared repeats of recent riots, while in much of Asia the threat of terrorist attacks hung large.

In Indonesia, a bomb killed eight and wounded 45 others in a province long plagued by separatism.

Families in Sydney jostled for vantage points around the harbour to watch a spectacular fireworks show at midnight.

A huge police presence, aimed at preventing a repeat of two nights of racial violence in the city’s southern beachside suburbs earlier this month, failed to dampen spirits.

More than 1,700 police officers were on duty for the night and police helicopters and boats buzzed across the harbour.

The generally jubilant celebrations were in sharp contrast to last year, when the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami led many countries and individuals to cancel festivities.

“It’s a bit hard to celebrate when you see people so dejected and hurt, like what people saw on TV,” said Ann Ward from the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, who brought her family to watch the fireworks display. “This year is much better.”

For the millions left homeless by this year’s South Asian quake, however, the new year was expected to begin with heavy snow and rain. Relief agencies also warned that the harsh Himalayan winter could hamper aid deliveries and create conditions ripe for illnesses.

Pakistan’s army and aid workers have been using helicopters, roads and mule tracks to get tents, clothes, food and other provisions to survivors since the October 8 quake killed an estimated 87,000 people and destroyed the homes of 3.5 million others.

In Indonesia, a bomb ripped through a crowded meat market ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations, killing at least eight people and wounding 45 in a Central Sulawesi province, officials said.

The attack in the town of Palu followed repeated warnings from authorities that the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jemaah Islamiyah was plotting holiday strikes in Indonesia.

Brig Gen Oegroseno, the provincial police chief, said a bomb packed with ball bearings and nails went off as people were flocking to the market early on Saturday to buy pork for the night’s festivities.

In mostly-Muslim Bangladesh, 5,000 strong security forces searched cars and patrolled the streets of the capital to thwart possible violence in the wake of a series of bombings blamed on Islamic extremists that have killed at least 26 people.

Police and members of an elite security force manned special checkpoints and patrolled entertainment districts, college campuses and upmarket residential areas in Dhaka, where western-style celebrations often end in drunken revelry.

In France, some 25,000 police officers were to keep order on New Year’s Eve, a night when partying youths often set hundreds of cars ablaze as festivities get out of hand.

Police are being especially cautious this year because of the rioting and car-torchings that broke out for three weeks starting in late October. A state of emergency was imposed to quell the rioting, and is still in effect.

In London, tens of thousands of partygoers were facing a night of transport chaos as workers on the underground train system started a strike.

The walkout was likely to put a damper on a huge open-air party planned for central London’s Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve and a colourful New Year Parade in Parliament Square on Sunday.

“We have been planning this event for two years,” parade organiser Dan Kirkby said. “We have got 10,000 performers from all over the world, 4,500 of whom have raised their own funds to be here, and what has London done? Really let them down.”

In the Philippines, officials were threatening to arrest anyone who set off powerful fireworks or fired guns to try and prevent the deaths and injuries that accompany New Year’s Eve festivities every year. Already, two people had died from guns fired in celebration, and two people from accidentally eating a popular sparkler which looks like a sweet. Another 162 people suffered firework-related injuries during the run-up to New Year’s Eve, according to police and health officials.

Japanese were expected to usher in the new year in shops, temples and in front of their television sets.

Police expect almost 100 million people to visit shrines and temples in the first three days of 2006, and more than 14,000 to climb the country’s mountains - including the 3,776-metre (12,387 foot), snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji – to see the first sunrise of the new year.

But a new holiday pastime is emerging – watching professional wrestling on TV, and many were expected to ring in the new year glued to their sets.

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