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Persian ritual draws celebrants outdoors

ESFARAYEN, Iran (AP) -- Iranians flocked to parks and orchards to mark Sizdeh Bedar, an ancient festival that predates Islam and goes back thousands of years to the time when Zoroastrianism was the predominant religion of Persia.

Iran's hard-line ruling clerics have discouraged many pre-Islamic rituals, but they've been unable to put Iranians off the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, and its ending celebration of Sizdeh Bedar.

The festival falls on the thirteenth day of Nowruz -- Sizdeh is 13 and Bedar means "passing" in Persian.

It is believed to be bad luck to stay indoors for the holiday, so families and friends traditionally head outdoors for an elaborate picnic lunch.

The festival has several traditions. Iranians throw trays of sprouted seeds that have been sitting on their Nowruz tables into water representing happy life. Young and old alike tie blades of grass or flowers together in the hope the New Year will be filled with happiness and prosperity. Young girls usually make wishes to get married as they tie the blades of grass.


State of emergency extended for 5th time

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Tunisia is extending its state of emergency, first called during street unrest after the fall of the North African nation's longtime leader in January 2011.

The office of President Moncef Marzouki said Sunday that the state of emergency will continue until the end of the month.

It was the fifth time the measure has been extended. Marzouki's office cited persistent risks to public order in several regions "despite an improvement of the security situation in recent weeks."

The state of emergency notably allows soldiers and police to fire on those who refuse orders to stop.

The toppling of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali sparked the Arab Spring.


Fire-damaged ship arrives at port

SANDAKAN, Malaysia (AP) -- Smiling passengers voiced relief and gratitude after safely leaving a fire-damaged luxury cruise ship that was stranded at sea for 24 hours and limped without air-conditioning into a Malaysian port Sunday.

The Azamara Quest drifted off the southern Philippines with 1,000 people aboard after flames engulfed one of its engine rooms Friday, injuring five crew members. It restored propulsion the next night and reached the harbor of Sandakan city in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah on Borneo island late Sunday.

"I'm glad I'm safe," ship passenger Dorothy Irvine, a retired school principal from Toronto, told reporters at a Sandakan hotel. "The Azamara crew kept us informed all the time and went beyond the call of duty. The captain was phenomenal."

The fire on the Azamara Quest had been extinguished immediately, but five crew members suffered smoke inhalation, including one who needed hospital care, the ship's operator has said.

The 11-deck vessel was carrying 590 passengers and 411 crew members. Over one-third, or 201, of the passengers were American.