Asian and Pacific countries were among the first to greet the New Year, with festivities in many cities held amid heightened security against possible terrorist attacks. More than a million people turned out to see a massive pyrotechnics display light up Australia's Sydney Harbor. In the Philippines, authorities said a blaze accidentally set off by a fireworks vendor killed at least 14 people in Lucena, 70 miles southeast of Manila.
At least five people were reported killed when a protest in Kirkuk, Iraq, turned violent Wednesday. Another 20 people were wounded, hospital officials said. Several thousand Arab and Turkmen demonstrators shouting "Kirkuk is an Iraqi city" surrounded the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main parties that want the oil-rich northern city to be part of a proposed Kurdish autonomous region. Police said Kurdish gunmen fired on the rally, a claim denied by the PUK.
Syria responded angrily to the Israeli government's disclosure of plans to spend $56 million to expand Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights. The region was captured by Israel in the 1967 war and Damascus recently proposed reopening peace talks it hopes will bring a territorial handover. Meanwhile, Israeli troops clashed Wednesday with activists protesting construction of the security barrier along the West Bank. Eleven demonstrators were reported hurt and eight others, among them a Swedish Green Party lawmaker, were arrested.
As many as 20,000 protesters were expected to attend a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong New Year's Day, organizers said. If confirmed, the turnout would be the largest since a half-million-strong protest in July against the government of Beijing-backed leader Tung Chee-hwa. Tung's popularity is at a record low after his push for a controversial antisubversion bill this summer splintered his ruling coalition and triggered a political crisis. His government has pledged to unveil a timetable for talks on election reforms early this year.
An explosion at a newly opened fireworks plant in northeast China killed 37 people, state media said. The factory owner fled in the wake of Tuesday's blast in the city of Tieling but was arrested later in a nearby province. Chen Haoyan, identified as a university professor, set up the plant in August to produce "safe and environmentally friendly fireworks," but never obtained a safety permit, the official Xinhua news agency reported. Fireworks explosions kill dozens of people each year in China. The government announced new safety rules in November.