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Asia Rings in the New Year

December 31, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ From shrine visits in Tokyo to a gesture of peace by Taiwan, Asians marked the new year with an eye on tradition and efforts to resolve crises in some of the world’s most strife-torn areas.

In Japan, as the Year of the Dragon gave way to the Year of the Snake at midnight Sunday, temple bells began sounding 108 times, symbolically driving out the 108 sins in the Buddhist catalogue.

Ships gave traditional blows on their horns in harbors, and many people began the customary visits to shrines and temples that will take place over the next few days.

``Each person has his own hopes and wishes that they come to the shrine to pray for,″ said Tsutomu Kurita, an official at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine. ``The Japanese will refresh their minds with these visits.″

Taiwan marked New Year’s Day by lifting a 51-year-old ban on voyages from tiny Taiwanese-controlled islets near the Chinese coast to the mainland. Supporters look on the first legal voyage Monday _ along a route taken by smugglers for years _ as a step toward easing tensions with the rival Beijing government.

Record-breaking was a common theme around Asia as it welcomed 2001. Students from China, Japan and South Korea planned to set a new one by tripping thousands of colored dominos in a Beijing auditorium to produce scenes of the Great Wall, a version of a van Gogh painting, and other effects.

In Malaysia, 11 skydivers from the United States, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia jumped off the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the world’s tallest buildings, and set what they claim is a new world record for the largest number of people to parachute off a building.

The old record was five, set in Bangkok earlier this year, they said. In any case, the new record looked to last only a few hours, since it was essentially a practice jump for a bigger exploit _ a midnight leap just at the turn of the millennium by 15 parachutists.

They were to attempt a record they expect will last 1,000 years _ to hurtle off the towers just before midnight in the old millennium and land just afterward in the new.

Omar Alhegalan, 34, a jumper and native of Saudi Arabia, said jumping for him is the ``ultimate expression of freedom.″

``As a Muslim, as someone from Saudi Arabia, I dedicate this jump to the children of Palestine and Israel, and I hope that they enjoy the same kind of freedom,″ Alhegalan said.

People partied throughout Hong Kong to greet the new year, some gathering in Victoria Park for a government-organized carnival, which included a live concert by more than 20 local pop stars.

Thousands of other revelers congregated outside a shopping mall in Hong Kong’s Times Square to count down the year in front of a large TV screen.

``I hope 2001 will be a year of prosperity and peace,″ said school teacher Gloria Chan, who brought along her 10-year-old son to the packed square.

Some nations’ New Year’s were less than festive.

In Pakistan, Shabab-e-Milli, the youth wing of the Islamic country’s most organized religious group, the Jamaat-e-Islami, warned revelers against partying and celebrations, the newspaper Nawa-e-Waqat reported.

Shabab-e-Milli’s volunteers said they would patrol streets in the federal capital and vowed to stop any celebrations because they are contrary to the teaching of Islam, according to a statement issued by the group.

Islam prohibits drinking, dancing and segregates men and women. Policemen in mainly Muslim Bangladesh conducted a similar crackdown on revelry.

``Stern action will be taken against those who create public nuisance, blast firecrackers and block traffic to celebrate the new year,″ the Dhaka Metropolitan Police said in a statement.

In Singapore, about 35 followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement held a standoff with police in a park as the sect members tried to hold a vigil in memory of fellow believers they say died in China.

The meditation sect has attracted millions of members in China and throughout the world. Beijing, fearing Falun Gong’s popularity and its threat to Communist Party rule, has banned the group and sent thousands of members to prison and labor camps.

Indonesia, its economy in tatters and much of the country in the throes of religious and separatist conflicts, met the new year with a decision to relax its grip on power in hopes of keeping the nation together by allowing communities to manage themselves.

Starting Jan. 1, the government will relinquish much of its power to district administrations _ a dramatic change in a country where power traditionally has been held by an elite few in the capital, Jakarta.

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