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Terror-Rattled Asia Readies for New Year

December 31, 2002

Malaysian police raised security around the world’s tallest towers and Australia closed Sydney’s center to traffic on Tuesday, as millions in the Pacific Rim prepared to bring in the New Year amid growing fears of terrorist attacks.

Malaysian police guarded Kuala Lumpur’s twin towers, the world’s tallest buildings, and special forces were deployed in the Philippines to guard the U.S. and other embassies from possible terror attacks.

In Australia, officers closed Sydney’s downtown to traffic as an estimated 1 million people flocked to its harbor for a spectacular fireworks display with a peace theme.

The region has been on heightened alert since Oct. 12, when bombs tore through two nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali, killing 192. The victims were mostly Western vacationers and 88 of them were Australians.

The blasts are blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah, a group linked to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

In a defiant gesture against terrorism, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri was to lead national celebrations on Bali, not far from the attack site.

Overall, more than 200,000 security personnel would be on duty across the world’s most populous Islamic nation. In the capital, Jakarta, bomb squad officers and armed officers were watching over revelers.

``We are all on full alert,″ said police spokesman Lt. Col. Zainuri Lubis.

Nonetheless, nervous western embassies told their citizens to stay at home.

In Sydney, a security operation was put in place, rivaled only by that imposed during the 2000 Olympics, after the government said it had received a ``credible″ warning of a terror strike. Despite the tough measures, authorities urged people not to surrender to fear.

``Don’t be a prisoner in your home _ get out and enjoy New Year’s Eve no matter where you want to go,″ New South Wales state Assistant Police Commissioner Dick Adams told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

In the Philippines, Manila police chief Pedro Bulaong said SWAT teams and plainclothes agents on motorcycles were posted near the already tightly secured seaside American Embassy and other diplomatic missions in the capital to prevent possible terrorist or rebel attacks timed with New Year’s.

Although there were no specific threats, ``emergency units were on standby to respond to anything that could happen,″ Bulaong told The Associated Press.

In Kuala Lumpur, police tightened security at the Petronas Twin Towers, where partygoers will join Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and watch skydivers leap from the 1,483-foot nickel-plated skyscrapers at midnight.

Security in the mostly Muslim Pakistan has been stepped up for New Year’s _ a celebration some religious leaders frown on as Western, decadent and against Islamic traditions.

In Karachi, where several terrorist attacks have targeted foreigners in 2002, police were enforcing a ban on hotel parties as thousands of young people gathered on beaches on the Arabian Sea.

In Kabul in Afghanistan, few New Year’s Eve celebrations are expected, apart from private parties, mostly among foreigners. International peacekeepers were mulling whether to set off fireworks at midnight over the city, more used to the pyrotechnics of war than peace.

In Japan, millions of Japanese will throng to shrines and temples. Toshinobu Hiroki, spokesman for Japan’s National Police Agency, said there had been no specific warnings of terrorist activity.

Security is always tight in Beijing, China, and it wasn’t clear whether measures had been ratcheted up further for the New Year, which is not widely celebrated. Public buildings are always closely guarded and, in the embassy district, roads are blocked and guards, some toting submachine guns, are posted every few feet.

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