Merriment and misery: How the world kicked off 2013

A million people crammed into Times Square on Tuesday to greet the new year in a global party that kicked off in Australia before rolling around the world in a non-stop chain of firework displays.

An estimated one billion television viewers around the world also watched the Big Apple extravaganza, which climaxed when the mayor, aided by a bevy of Rockettes dancers, sent the traditional glittering crystal ball down a pole at one minute to midnight.

Kissing and dancing erupted in the thronged streets as fireworks erupted over Manhattan.

"It's something you need to do in your life. It's New York and New Year's Eve," said an excited Juli (18), visiting from Austria.

Worldwide celebrations got started on a balmy summer's night in Sydney with a $6.9-million pyrotechnics display overseen by pop star Kylie Minogue.

From there, the endless party shifted to a kaleidoscopic eight-minute jamboree in Hong Kong, with the city's famed Victoria Harbour lit up in spectacular fashion, and fireworks across other Asian cities, including for the first time Yangon, in long-isolated Myanmar.

Celebrations to the west
As midnight moved westward through time zones, the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, was the centrepiece of festivities in the huge expatriate and tourist hub.

In Britain, tens of thousands braved rain on the banks of the Thames to see fireworks and the London Eye wheel lit up in changing colours.

"What an amazing end to an incredible year," said the British capital's Mayor Boris Johnson, alluding to the Olympic and royal spectaculars of 2012.

In Washington, the White House and top Republicans rang in 2013 by striking a last-minute budget deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" tax hikes and spending cuts. The US Senate in the wee hours of the New Year, held a vote passing the measure, with the House possibly following suit later Tuesday.

It was New York that led the US party scene however, with South Korean pop sensation Psy and country star Taylor Swift in the line-up and the Empire State Building blazing in an unusual pulsating light display.

Rolling resolutions
Frederick Martineau, a sales rep from Quebec, Canada, made the trip to Times Square as a Christmas present for his girlfriend, Sonia Lapointe.

Asked about his 2013 resolution Martineau (3) patted his substantial midriff and grinned: "Guess what?"

Another Canadian couple who were kitted out with tinsel and small golden trumpets, said coming to the Big Apple new year's bash was a dream come true.

"I've always wanted to be here. I've watched it on TV for so many years," Sherry (49) said.

"2012 was a hard year. I survived pancreatic cancer this year. I lost my brother this year. So we have come here with a lot of hope for next year."

Deadly festivities
The merrymaking turned deadly in Sacramento, California, when shots rang out during a suspected altercation as crowds gathered to watch New Year's Eve fireworks killing two people and leaving at least four others wounded, KTXL television reported.

The new year also often turns lethal in parts of Latin America, where revellers sometimes celebrate by firing guns into the air, but there were no reports of deadly celebrations early Tuesday.

Many festivities were on hold in Venezuela however, out of respect for President Hugo Chavez, who has suffered a health setback following a return of his cancer.

But tragedy struck in Côte d'Ivoire when around 60 people died and at least dozens were injured as a crowd stampeded during new year's fireworks in the economic capital Abidjan, rescue workers there said.

Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin used a traditional new year's address to call for unity following a year of protests against his return to the Kremlin for a third term.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated New Year's Eve vespers in St Peter's Basilica, voicing solidarity with the poor and calling on believers to pause to reflect from time to time despite busy lives.

"We have to know how to stop and think. This way our soul can find healing for the inevitable wounds of everyday life," he said.

Forgetting troubles
In Spain, revellers who gathered in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square ahead of midnight – cowed by cold, rain and recession – sought to numb the pain of economic crisis with a glass of wine and plenty of cheer.

Manuela Ibanez (51), who came from Barcelona with her two daughters, said: "At times like this we forget the crisis."

In Paris, however, there was less cheer as authorities issued a reminder that all fireworks are officially banned for the night.

Earlier in Asia, in regions devastated by Typhoon Bopha, which hit the southern Philippines in early December killing more than 1 000 people, many survivors said food, work and permanent shelter topped their priorities.

In the capital Manila, authorities had been bracing for the annual rush of injuries as families celebrated with do-it-yourself firework displays and shot celebratory bullets into the air.

New and traditional celebrations
Seoul ushered in 2013 with a ritual ringing of the city's 15th-century bronze bell 33 times, reflecting the ancient practice of marking a new year.

Millions visited temples and shrines in Japan for "ninen-mairi" two-year prayers, gathering at family homes to feast on soba noodles and watch the new year variety show Kōhaku Uta Gassen (which translates to the “red and white song contest”).

Fireworks also went up in cities across China. And in Taiwan, hundreds of thousands defied chilly winds to pack the square in front of the Taipei City Hall for a concert featuring Taiwanese pop diva A-Mei and Hong Kong-based singer and actor Aaron Kwok.

In Myanmar, however, an estimated 50 000 flocked to Yangon's revered golden Shwedagon Pagoda for the city's first public new year countdown and fireworks display, seen as further evidence of opening up after decades of military rule.

"I came here to have fun and leave disappointment behind," said 27-year-old partygoer Sithu.

But in India, rocked by the deadly gang rape of a young medical student, the armed forces cancelled new year celebrations while many hotels and bars scaled back parties out of respect for the unnamed victim. – Sapa-AFP


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Sebastian Smith
Sebastian Smith
AFP White House correspondent. Previously Rio, NYC, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, Paris -- and a couple years at sea.

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