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CROWDS WORLDWIDE MARK THE MOMENT

Millions of people joyously packed the city streets of Europe and the Americas on Friday to join in a worldwide welcome for the new millennium, ignoring fears of terrorist attack and computer collapse to revel in a shimmering spectacle of song, light and fireworks.

From South Sea islands to the southernmost city in the world, from the Eiffel Tower to New York's Times Square, they partied and prayed for a better world.

Along with choreographed spectacle came high drama, reminders Friday in Russia and Asia of the turmoil of the dying century.

Fireworks lighted up the skies over Rome, where Pope John Paul II made his first-ever midnight appearance on New Year's Eve and welcomed the new millennium as an estimated 120,000 people packed St. Peter's Square.

"I wish you a year filled with peace: the peace proclaimed by the angels on that holy night; the peace of Christ, who out of love became a brother to every human being," the pontiff said, speaking from his apartment window on the third floor of the apostolic palace above the square.

"What suffering, what dramatic events!" the frail 79-year-old pontiff said of the 1900s. "But also, what incredible achievements."

In New York City, Times Square celebrated New Year's Eve for the world Friday in a wild street party that exploded when the millennium arrived in America. At midnight, a flashing, glittering crystal ball dropped to a countdown from a cheering, banner-waving crowd that flooded midtown.

The 20th century passed into history with more than 1million people in and around the square. The crystal ball's descent in Times Square is traditional, but the ball was newly designed for the millennium -- a 1,070-pound Waterford crystal ball with 90 rotating pyramid mirrors that sent lights dancing across the crowd below.

Despite warnings of terrorism, people had come from around the world to greet 2000 in the place that Americans traditionally look to for the signal of a new year.

In Washington, President Clinton welcomed the new millennium today by invoking a hope for "the triumph of peace and harmony" in America and beyond.

Even as he greeted the 21st century, Clinton had warm words for the expiring one. Invoking the memory of one of the century's towering figures, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Clinton proclaimed, "Let freedom ring!"

Speaking on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial moments before the National Mall erupted in a blaze of fireworks, Clinton said: "We Americans must not fear change. Instead, let us welcome it, embrace it and create it."

Clinton helped stow artifacts of 20th century America -- including Army dog tags and a public library card -- into a time capsule to be opened at the 21st century's end.

Humanity also breathed a little easier as the rolling wave of 1999-to-2000 date changes failed to awaken any immediate Y2K disruptions of the world's major computer systems. Experts cautioned that problems still could arise in the next few days or even weeks.

But even on this most widely celebrated midnight in history, amid the fireworks, prayers and revelry, old hatreds and unscripted events surfaced.

An hour before Tonga and Kiribati in the south Pacific became the first countries to welcome 2000, Boris N. Yeltsin announced he was resigning the Russian presidency to make way for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

It was a gesture to democracy that would have been unimaginable until the collapse of communism in the last years of the century -- a century of tumult that began with world war, split the atom, spliced the gene and pitted East against West in Cold War and proxy wars.

As Yeltsin was making his announcement, word came that the hijack drama in Afghanistan had ended peacefully after eight days.

The capitals of Europe, the continent that dominated the past millennium, put on dazzling spectacles.

At midnight in Paris, the Eiffel Tower itself danced in a dazzling ballet of fiery colors before popping its cork to spew symbolic bubbles across a planet in need of some cheer.

Around its base, huge crowds sprayed each other with the real thing, screamed cheers in a dozen languages and kissed the nearest person.

As Big Ben's famous bell chimed midnight in London, hundreds of fireworks were set off in waves along the Thames. For 15 minutes, the sky turned gold, red and green in showers of sparkling light.

At midnight, Queen Elizabeth II toasted the new millennium with a glass of champagne and kissed her husband, Prince Philip, on the cheek. They linked arms with Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, and sang "Auld Lang Syne."

Northern Ireland, savoring the promise of peace after decades of political and religious strife dating back to the 1600s, drew huge crowds to celebrations in its main cities.

Some 2 million people massed in central Berlin. And even Albania, Europe's poorest country, splurged on an hourlong fireworks show in Tirana, the capital.

The show began at 5 a.m. Eastern Standard Time near the international date line in the south Pacific, and swept westward, giving pause -- at the end of a speeded-up century of shortened memory -- for reflection on the past.

In the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak marked the last day of the century with a prediction that peace was coming to a country at war for 50 years. "The decisive moment is very near, even within a few months, and we should ready our hearts appropriately," he wrote in a newspaper article.

Yasser Arafat, leader of a Palestinian people homeless for 50 years, promised statehood early in the new millennium.

Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, greeted the new millennium with 2,000 doves soaring above a floodlit Manger Square. Tens of thousands of Palestinians cheered as fireworks lighted the sky.

In stark contrast, many streets of nearby Jerusalem were deserted. Orthodox Jews observed the 17th Sabbath of the Hebrew calendar year 5760 at home with traditional Friday evening meals and prayers.

The Western calendar is the world's calendar in its everyday business, but it is hardly a universal timekeeper. Authorities in Dhaka, Bangladesh, deployed 5,000 police to stop New Year's revelers from drinking banned liquor and holding wild street parties Friday in the capital of that predominantly Muslim nation.

And strictly speaking, the millennium doesn't really begin until 2000 is over, as Arthur C. Clarke, celebrated author of the "2001" series of science-fiction novels, reminded the world Friday.

"Well, I think it is a good excuse to make the whole of 2000 one long party," the British-born author told the Associated Press at his home in Sri Lanka. "But this is not the new millennium."

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