Beliefnet

(AP) Hour by frantic, expectant hour, a new millennium swept across the planet today, uniting billions of human beings from Earth's every corner in a satellite-linked pageant of celebration, contemplation and wonder.

With that, the tumultuous 20th century was ending - convulsive and astonishing to the very last.

Welcoming the millennium first - at 5 a.m. EST, before 23 other time zones - was Kiribati, a diminutive South Pacific island nation so enthusiastic about the attention that it realigned its chunk of the international date line east by two hours to stage the first ceremony.

``Let us put aside all divisions. Let us unite in love and peace,'' chanted grass-skirted dancers, illuminated by moonlight and the licking flames of glowing torches on a dark tropical beach of Kiribati's usually uninhabited Millennium Island.

From halfway across the world, two dramatic developments grabbed a share of the attention. Ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin resigned abruptly 12 hours before 2000 arrived in Moscow, surprising his nation and the world. The first post-Soviet president, who helped end the wave of communism that spread across the world for more than 70 years, turned power over to his prime minister immediately.

And on a remote Afghan tarmac, hijackers freed 155 hostages who spent a terrifying week as captives on a grounded Indian Airlines. The hijackers drove away after the Indian government agreed to release two militants and an Islamic cleric; the hostages clambered off the plane shortly after.

Apprehensions about terrorism and technology had already been clouding the world's millennial revelry. Nations, airlines and computer users girded for eruptions of the Y2K bug. Police worldwide braced for terrorist attacks. Americans, shaken by a spate of arrests at their borders, looked around and wondered if violence would come.

``We're prepared for anything,'' said Cmdr. Steve Jones, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando, Fla.

Fearing a millennium-linked terrorist plot, federal agents swept across the nation Thursday, arresting people in two cities and questioning dozens of others about whether an Algerian suspected of smuggling explosives was part of a terrorist plot.

Security was stiffened at airports, borders, government buildings and gathering places. A jittery Seattle canceled its party, and many bashes months in the planning fizzled as people decided to stay home. Emergency officials steeled themselves for a busy few days.

In New York City, where a souped-up version of the usual frenetic midnight celebration was planned in Times Square, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani implored citizens ``not to let the psychology of fear infect the way they act.''

``Otherwise,'' he said, ``we have let the terrorists win without anybody striking a blow.''

The dreaded Y2K bug made for some unease, too. In South Korea, for example, a court computer ordered 170 people to appear for trial on Jan. 4, 1900. Companies girded.

``The stress today is trying to think of what we forgot,'' said Lloyd Stegemann, an executive at Rhode Island-based GTECH, the world's largest lottery machine supplier.

But New Zealand, regarded as a Y2K test case for the industrialized world, began 2000 with no reports of glitches. ``The lights are still on,'' said Basil Logan, chairman of the Y2K readiness commission. Phone lines were jammed and Internet use surged there and in Australia during the early hours of Jan. 1.

The millennium's arrival ends what is perhaps human history's most turbulent century - one that brought the world cars and planes, transistors and TVs, microchips and the Internet and open-heart surgery.

But there was also upheaval and violence on an unprecedented scale. In wars, death camps and man-made famines, more people died more quickly in the 1900s than ever before - in new conflicts and old hatreds stoked by fresh technologies. The atom, harnessed, created an efficient way to kill lots of people quickly. AIDS emerged.

With that parentage, the 21st century begins against a backdrop of apprehension - about terrorism, technology and humanity's place in an increasingly confusing world. Leaders around the world called for calm and cooperation.

``We must ensure that in the coming century all our people live in one America - an America where we are not separated from one another by prejudice, by economic injustice, or by a digital divide,'' President Clinton said.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan welcomed the infant century's hope but warned of its ``new dangers - or old ones in a new and alarming form.''

Celebrations softened the unease considerably.

An hour after midnight in Kiribati (pronounced Kih-rih-BUS), the skies over New Zealand erupted in a starfield of purples, oranges and violets. Two hours later, Sydney treated 1 million onlookers to an elegant harborside fireworks show. Launched from the city where the 2000 Summer Olympics will take place, the pyrotechnics seemed to flow upward into the heavens like liquid. The U.S. territory of Guam came next at 9 a.m. EST, celebrating in typically raucous fashion with beach parties and family feasts.

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