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World Greets 2003 Warily

Thousands of New Year's Eve revelers enjoy the 99th New Year's Eve party in New York's Times Square Tuesday. Dec. 31, 2002.
AP
Japanese streamed into temples, Russians packed a frigid Red Square and revelers from around the world crowded the confetti-strewn streets of New York's Times Square to greet the new year amid global concerns about war and terrorism.

Just hours before midnight, a suspected member of a separatist group tossed a grenade at a crowded roadside fireworks stall in the southern Philippines, killing at least 10 people and injuring 32 others, an army official said.

In Mexico, a fire broke out Tuesday at illegal fireworks stands in the Gulf port city of Veracruz. The fire engulfed a city block, killing at least 28 people and injuring 50 others, a city fire official said.

North Korea issued a New Year's message Wednesday, in the midst of rising tensions over its nuclear weapons program, urging its people to build an army-based "powerful nation" and defy pressure from the United States.

"The United States is now becoming all the more frantic in its moves to stifle (North Korea), openly clamoring about a preemptive nuclear attack on it," said the message, carried on the country's foreign news outlet, Korean Central News Agency.

As 2003 dawned in Asia, the world's most populous continent held peaceful celebrations.

In Japan, millions participated in traditional prayers at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines — many hoping for the prosperity that has eluded the world's second-largest economy for a decade.

For five Japanese abducted by North Korean spies in 1978, it was their first chance to spend the holidays at home.

"It's like a dream being here," said Yukiko Hasuike, who was allowed a two-week visit to Japan in October that has become an indefinite stay. Hasuike and her husband, Kaoru, were snatched from her hometown.

At a Hong Kong soccer stadium, more than 1,000 Buddhist monks led thousands of people, including Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, in chants for good fortune.

New Year's Day is not widely observed in China, where the Chinese New Year in early February is the season's major holiday. Still, President Jiang Zemin took the opportunity to amplify his usual optimistic vision for China's future.

"China's development is inseparable from the world's, and the prosperity of the world also cannot be achieved without China," Jiang said in a New Year's Day speech, quoted by the China Daily newspaper.

In Sydney, Australia, crews spent Wednesday morning sweeping up after some 450,000 people watched a fireworks display the night before. Security was tight and police reported only the usual arrests for drunkenness and assault.

Authorities around the world had braced for the threat of terrorism.

In New York, 2,000 police officers, including rooftop sharpshooters, watched more than 750,000 revelers herald the arrival of 2003 in Times Square. The crowd watched a glimmering, 1,070-pound ( 481-kilogram) Waterford crystal ball drop and sang along to the Beatles song, "All You Need Is Love."

It was the 99th observance of the annual tradition in a blizzard of red, white and blue confetti. But security was tight. City crews set up Times Square metal-detector checkpoints, sealed manholes and removed nearby mailboxes. A 12-hour flight ban over the city kept pilots from flying below 2,000 feet (600 meters).

In Italy, security was increased at the Vatican, at airports and at the U.S. and Israeli Embassies in Rome. Pope John Paul II opened the new year Wednesday by pleading for an end to the "fratricidal and senseless" conflict in the Middle East.

"Bethlehem! The Holy Land! The dramatic and persistent tensions that the Middle East region finds itself in makes all the more urgent the search for a positive solution to the fratricidal and senseless conflict, which for too long has bloodied it," the 82-year-old pontiff told the faithful in St. Peter's Basilica.

Police were out in force in Moscow's Red Square, where vast crowds descended on the nation's capital despite subzero temperatures and jitters caused by terror attacks on a Moscow theater in October and in Chechnya at the end of the year. Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a sober message to his troubled nation.

"Russia, a country with a thousand-year history, is meeting its future properly," Putin said in a televised message broadcast as midnight arrived in each of the country's 10 time zones.

In Israel, security was tight but Tel Aviv night clubs and hotels were packed for New Year's Eve celebrations, despite the threat of terrorist attacks.

In Ivory Coast, the government rescinded a shoot-on-sight military curfew for one night. The curfew began Sept. 19 when a failed coup threw the West African nation into civil war.

Venezuelans held protest rallies in the run-up to the new year, with tens of thousands gathering on a highway to demand the ouster of President Hugo Chavez while a smaller group gathered to support the embattled leader amid a paralyzing national strike that began Dec. 2.

Chavez said in his New Year's Eve address that he was prevailing, but he asked Venezuelans to brace for more hardships in 2003.

American forces stationed in the Gulf region celebrated despite the possibility of a war with Iraq.

Some 5,000 U.S. sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation were treated to a feast of grilled chicken and steak, hot dogs, baked beans, cookies and sodas. The ship has been launching air patrols over southern Iraq since it arrived in the Gulf on Dec. 17.

"Whether or not we are flying, or we are a steel beach picnic, we are ready," said Capt. John W. Miller, the carrier's commanding officer.

The party spirit was high in Malaysia, where daredevil skydivers threw themselves off the world's tallest buildings near midnight in a group jump in Kuala Lumpur. Tens of thousands of people — Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad among them — partied in the park at the base of the 1,483-foot (445-meter) Petronas Twin Towers.

There have been jitters across Asia since Oct. 12, when bombs tore through two nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali, killing 192 people. President Megawati Sukarnoputri struck a gong to ring in the new year close to the site of the bombings, after prayers for the victims and pledges to fight terrorism.