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Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Gaza puts damper on New Year's celebrations worldwide

New Year celebrations kicked off in lavish style in Australia Thursday -- but the Gaza conflict, memories of Mumbai and global economic downturn left partygoers elsewhere feeling flat as 2009 crept steadily westwards.

Indeed, 2009 greeted Thailand with tragedy, when a fire ripped through a Bangkok nightclub early Thursday, killing at least 54 New Year revellers, a local administration official said.

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

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.

Not everyone was in the mood -- with India set for a subdued New Year's Eve and several Arab states cancelling planned celebrations in solidarity with Palestinians in the Islamist-run Gaza Strip who suffered a fifth straight day of Israeli bombardment on Wednesday.

Egypt, Jordan, Dubai and Syria all cancelled 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.

Tight security was planned in Mumbai, which is still coming to terms with the trauma of the November terror attacks that left 172 people dead. Police were keeping an especially close watch on traditional boat parties along Mumbai's famed waterfront. More