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New Year's Eve celebrations ring in 2012 worldwide

Australians rang in the new year in the South Pacific with magnificent fireworks over Sydney Harbor. They were among the first to welcome 2012. (Photo: Associated Press)
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APIA, Samoa (AP) - Cheers erupted in the streets of Samoa on Sunday as New Year's Eve revelers on the South Pacific island nation greeted the start of 2012 with extra excitement: For once, they were the first in the world to welcome the new year, rather than the last.

The celebrations had really begun a full 24 hours earlier, when Samoa and neighboring Tokelau hopped across the international date line, skipping Friday and moving instantly from Thursday to Saturday. The time-jump revelry that began as 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 31 spilled into the night, with Samoans and tourists crowding around beaches and pools to toast the start of the new year.

Samoa and Tokelau lie near the date line that zigzags vertically through the Pacific Ocean, and both sets of islands decided to realign themselves this year from the Americas side of the line to the Asia side, to be more in tune with key trading partners.

"Everyone is happy right now," said Mao Visita, who was celebrating the beginning of the new year at the popular Aggie Grey's hotel in the capital, Apia. "The party is still going on with plenty of music."

Things were slightly less festive in New Zealand, the next major country to welcome 2012, where torrential rains and thunderstorms canceled fireworks displays in the capital, Wellington, the North Island city of Palmerston North and at the popular Mount Maunganui beach area. Aucklanders had better luck, with thousands crowding the city to watch a glittering fireworks display over Sky Tower.

Elsewhere across the globe, people prepared to say goodbye to a year that was marked by upheaval and mass protests in several Arab countries, economic turmoil and a seemingly endless string of devastating natural disasters.

World leaders evoked the year's events in their New Year's messages. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who starts his second term on New Year's Day, said he wants to help ensure and sustain the moves toward democracy protesters sought in the Arab Spring.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the new year would be more difficult than 2011 but that dealing with Europe's debt crisis would bring the countries closer. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wished well-being and prosperity to all Russians "regardless of their political persuasion" after large-scale protests against him.

In Australia, more than a million people were crowded along the shores of Sydney's shimmering harbor, awaiting the midnight fireworks extravaganza over Harbour Bridge. The display was designed around the theme "Time to Dream," a nod to the eagerness many felt at moving forward after the rough year.

Some of the fireworks were expected to explode in the shape of clouds - "Because every cloud has a silver lining," said Aneurin Coffey, the producer of Sydney's festivities. Colorful lights will be beamed onto the center of the bridge forming an "endless rainbow" meant to evoke hope.

Many were eager for a fresh start.

"I've had enough this year," said 68-year-old Sandra Cameron, who lost nearly everything she owned when her home in Australia's Queensland state was flooded to the ceiling during a cyclone in February. "It's gotta be a better year next year."

For Japan, 2011 was the year the nation was struck by a giant tsunami and earthquake that left an entire coastline destroyed, nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in meltdown.

At the year's end, many were reflecting on the fragility of life, while quietly determined to recover.

"For me, the biggest thing that defined this year was the disaster in March," said Miku Sano, 28, a nursing student in Fukushima city. "Honestly, I didn't know what to say to these people, who had to fight sickness while living in fear about ever being able to go back home. The radiation levels in the city of Fukushima, where I live, are definitely not low, and we don't know how that is going to affect our health in the future."

People in Japan were expected to spend Saturday visiting shrines and temples, offering their first prayers for the year. The giant hanging bells at temples will ring 108 times to purify the world of evil and bring good luck.

University student Kouichi Takayama said 2011 was a year he would never forget.

"It was a year I felt the preciousness of life with a passion," he said. "But I was also able to catch a glimpse of the warmth of human relations, and reconfirm my gratitude for family, community and everyday life. I hope I can connect meaningfully with more people next year to create a Japan that truly endures toward the future."

In the southern Philippine city of Cagayan de Oro, people were still coping with the aftermath of a tropical storm and flash flooding that killed more than 1,200.

For Ana Caneda, a disaster relief official in the badly hit city, the new year "offers a new ray of hope."

"It's going to be a relief to write the date 2012, not 2011," Caneda said.

In Hong Kong, more than 400,000 people were expected to watch a 4-minute, $1 million display of fireworks that will shoot off from 10 skyscrapers, lighting up Victoria Harbour.

Raymond Lo, a master of feng shui - the Chinese art of arranging objects and choosing dates to improve luck - said he wasn't surprised that 2011 was such a tumultuous year because it was associated with the natural elements of metal and wood. The year's natural disasters were foreshadowed, Lo said, because wood - which represents trees and nature - was attacked by metal.

2012 could be better because it's associated with ocean water, which represents energy and drive and the washing away of old habits, Lo said.

"Big water also means charity, generosity," Lo said. "Therefore that means sharing. That means maybe the big tycoons will share some of their wealth."

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Gelineau reported from Sydney. Associated Press writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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