Despite crises, revellers celebrate 2009

The world ushered in 2009 with festivities that included fireworks and church bells; recent EU addition Slovakia partied in euros to celebrate becoming the 16th member of the euro zone.


New Year festivities swept across Europe on Thursday — but Gaza fears, Mumbai memories, economic collapse and tragedy in Thailand each cast long shadows at the dawn of 2009.

Revellers braved freezing conditions in London to see the New Year fireworks spectacular on the banks of the River Thames, which engulfed the London Eye in a blaze of colour.

An estimated 400,000 people were expected to have lined the embankments to catch the 10-minute salvo, which lit up the misty night sky over the British capital, while the Scottish capital Edinburgh's traditional Hogmanay knees-up opened a year-long "Homecoming" festival aimed at the country's diaspora.

In Paris, over half a million people had already thronged on the French capital's famed Champs-Elysees an hour before the bells.

While Ukrainians wondered whether Russia would turn off the taps on its gas supply as threatened later on Thursday morning, Slovakia joined the euro zone; exactly 10 years after the single European currency was introduced.

About 100,000 people gathered in Bratislava's main square to celebrate the country becoming the 16th member of the eurozone.

Two 18-year-old students, David and Laco, were selling kisses for a euro each among a crowd of partying people sporting flashing headbands, hats and colourful wigs.

In Prague, the Czech Republic took over the European Union presidency from France at midnight as a top government official illuminated a giant pendulum on a hill above Prague with blue and yellow.

In Venice, some 30,000 welcomed in 2009 with a collective kiss.

Another 100,000 people descended on the Polish capital Warsaw, while in Athens' Syntagma Square — the scene of so many violent protests by Greek youth in the last month — the mood was equally upbeat.

But in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki youths set trash cans on fire in the city centre and lobbed Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas.

However, tragedy marked the immediate aftermath of the bells when fire ripped through a Bangkok nightclub, killing at least 59 New Year revellers.

Hamas' vow to fight Israel "until the last breath" in Gaza also dampened celebrations among Muslim sympathisers.

On Wall Street, a modest rise in stocks helped traders raise a pre-midnight glass despite the trauma of a catastrophic year rated as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But in India, where nuclear-armed tensions with neighbouring Pakistan remain all pervasive, Mumbai was marked by tight security after the trauma of the November terror attacks that left 172 people dead.

Police there were keeping an especially close watch on traditional boat parties along Mumbai's famed waterfront, the entry point for some of those behind the November slaughter.

Sydney was the first major world city to see in the New Year, although New Zealand also staged a dramatic fireworks display from Auckland's Sky Tower two hours earlier and 2009 officially kicked in on Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, in the Pacific Ocean, at 1000 GMT.

Up to a record 1.5 million Australians and tourists converged on the site surrounding Sydney's world-famous Opera House for the city's biggest-ever, multi-million-dollar fireworks display.

But several Arab states cancelled planned celebrations as Palestinians in the Islamist-run Gaza Strip suffered a fifth straight day of Israeli bombardment on Wednesday.

Egypt, Jordan, Dubai and Syria all called off festivities including concerts by renowned Arab singers, with Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum giving the order "as a sign of solidarity with the brotherly Palestinian people...," his office said.

Morocco even cancelled state television broadcasts, judging the mood inappropriate, according to Rabat's information minister.

The Indian resort state of Goa banned its famous beach parties — a huge draw for foreign tourists — with extra paramilitary troops deployed to ensure security.

A sombre note was also to be sounded in neighbouring Pakistan as December 31 falls on the second day of the Muslim mourning month of Muharram, which marks the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson in the seventh century.

Global financial meltdown dampened spirits, with laid-off workers in Japan's Tokyo camping out in the city's Hibiya Park after companies — including leading carmakers — cut tens of thousands of jobs.

Japan's Emperor Akihito in his New Year message called on the nation to unite in fighting its recession, saying it "grieves my heart that many people have been left in difficult conditions."

"This year ended with... a crisis which calls for more restraint and solidarity to help those people and families who have got into serious difficulties," Pope Benedict XVI said in his traditional end-of-year message.

China's main festivities will come later in the month with a week-long holiday for the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.

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