New Year's celebrations begin amid economic, military worries

Monday, December 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Buddhist priests in black robes rang temple bells and clasped their hands in prayer at midnight Monday, the start of New Year's celebrations tempered by global economic troubles and military tension.

In the final hours of 2001, world leaders pledged to keep up the fight against terror as peacekeepers arrived in Afghanistan to help the interim government rebuild the country.

India and Pakistan stood ready for war, violence between Palestinians and Israeli troops escalated and a tiny Pacific island was hit by a massive tropical storm.

Nevertheless, revelers from Bangkok to Jakarta and New Delhi thronged streets and gathered with family for the countdown to 2002. Millions of others were preparing for revelry from Brussels to New York and Cape Town to Caracas.

In Hong Kong, thousands of people gathered for the last minutes of 2001 at a huge TV screen in that city's Times Square and then listened to live music.

``I just want to enjoy the music. I don't worry about what will happen in 2002,'' said 20-year-old secretary Cathay Chan.

In New Delhi, as Indian leaders contemplated war against Pakistan after blaming it for a Dec. 13 terrorist attack on India's Parliament, shops and restaurants stayed open late to serve special delicacies and amusement parks teemed with visitors.

In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, tens of thousands of people celebrated in a main square and a waterfront amusement park, throwing firecrackers and shooting off rockets. Traffic along Jakarta's main north-south avenues stood still.

Major streets in the Thai capital, Bangkok, also were blocked for a New Year's countdown expected to draw more than 100,000.

Street parties were organized on Bangkok's busy Silom Road, as were a beauty pageant and live entertainment.

In the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, nearly 5,000 police patrolled streets to crack down on rowdy behavior, authorities said.

Although New Year celebrations for most Bangladeshis are held April 14 _ the start of the nearly 1,400-year-old secular Bengali calendar _ many westernized city dwellers also celebrate Dec. 31.

Behind the celebrations, however, was evidence that people worldwide felt less secure at the start of 2002.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan roiled financial markets and further weakened the global economy.

While Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered to join Pakistan in fighting terrorism, he warned his own people to be prepared for anything from additional terrorist attacks to full-blown war with its Islamic neighbor.

``India does not want war,'' Vajpayee told his country, adding, however, ``I would like you to be prepared for any eventuality.''

Asian leaders were preoccupied with political and economic troubles in their New Year's Day messages.

Once-booming Singapore fell into its worst recession since gaining independence in 1965 because of a global slump in demand for electronics _ its main export.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Monday the economy shrank by about 2.2 percent in 2001.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri _ battling corruption, bloody separatist movements, economic troubles and religious conflicts _ defended her six-month administration from rising criticism.

``However small they may be, here and there, some achievements have been reached,'' Megawati said, adding that the government was striving to heal the economy, deliver greater autonomy to the regions and end fighting between Muslims and Christians on Sulawesi Island.

As if to symbolize the end of a turbulent year, the tiny South Pacific island of Niuafo'ou was hit by a massive tropical storm just hours before it became one of the first places to herald in the New Year.

Tropical Cyclone Waka brought hurricane-force winds and heavy rains to the 14-square-mile island just west of the International Dateline, but none of the island's several hundred residents were injured, officials said.