Bombings Mark the New Year in Thailand, Security Surrounds Worldwide Celebrations

As the world welcomed in 2008, revelries in Thailand were marred by bombings that wounded 27 people. In French cafes, smokers puffed on their last cigarettes in the run-up to a Jan. 1 smoking ban. And people in Cyprus and Malta had to start using the euro currency.

In Sydney — one of the first cities to celebrate the New Year — one million revelers cheered as fireworks sprayed from the iconic Harbor Bridge. Fireworks displays were being repeated at the stroke of midnight in cities around the world.

Security was often tight. Traditional fireworks in central Brussels were canceled because of a terror threat after police last week detained 14 people suspected of plotting to help an accused al-Qaida militant break out of jail. In Paris, where festivities centered on the famous Champs-ElysDees avenue and the Eiffel Tower, about 4,500 police and 140 rescue officials patrolled the streets.

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In Thailand, an army spokesman said he believed that five bombs set off by suspected Muslim insurgents in a Thai-Malaysian border tourist town likely targeted New Year's revelers.

The bombs, which wounded 27 people, exploded in the hotel and nightlife area of Sungai Kolok, including two inside a hotel discotheque and one hidden in the carrying basket of a motorcycle outside a hotel, spokesman Col. Akara Thiprote said.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin, gave the final New Year's Eve address of his eight-year presidency, boasting of economic improvements and claiming to have restored a sense of unity among Russians, who are likely to see him stay in power as prime minister after he steps down in a few months.

"We have not only restored Russia's territorial integrity," he said, referring to the abated threat from Chechen separatism. "But once again we feel we are a united people."

Several European countries rang in the new year with new habits.

Starting at midnight, one of France's most iconic institutions — the smoke-filled cafe — was to become a memory. Following up on a ban last year on smoking in many indoor locations, cigarettes will now be off-limits in discotheques, restaurants, hotels, casinos and cafes.

People can still smoke in their homes, hotel rooms and sealed smoking chambers at establishments that decide to provide them. Many bartenders and restaurant staffers are looking forward to breathing easier and to clothes that don't stink of tobacco.

Two EU newcomers, Cyprus and Malta, start using the euro at the stroke of midnight. The Mediterranean islands, both former British colonies, scrap the Cyprus pound and Maltese lira to bring the number of countries using the shared currency to 15. Politicians will ceremonially withdraw euros from automatic teller machines after midnight, with fireworks and outdoor celebrations in the two capitals, Nicosia and Valletta.

Along with the innovations, old European traditions were maintained.

In London, people were gathering in Trafalgar Square and along the banks of the River Thames to watch a fireworks display and hear Big Ben — Parliament's iconic bell — welcome the New Year with 12 resounding bongs.

In a quirky tradition in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, Madrid residents planned to dine on 12 grapes — one for each chime at midnight.

Berlin was braced for a massive fete: In a stretch leading from the city's famous Brandenburg Gate along Tiergarten park to the western part of town, officials set up three stages, 13 bands, a 40-meter (40-yard) tall Ferris wheel and over 100 beer stands and snack joints.

Across the ocean, revelers in New York converged on Times Square to watch the dropping of a new energy-efficient ball, while gay couples in New Hampshire awaited the stroke of midnight to take advantage of a new law allowing civil unions.

More than 300,000 people were expected to crowd the Las Vegas Strip and downtown resorts for the countdown to midnight. They were expected to spend more than $200 million (euro135.86 million) in restaurants, theaters and clubs.

In Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI took a somber note, lamenting what he called the "trivialization" of sexuality and lack of faith among young people during a vespers' service in St. Peter's Basilica.

In Asia, China started its Olympic year with a New Year party including fireworks, singing and dancing.

The party, put on by the organizers of the Summer Olympics, saw Beijingers flock in the cold to the Millennium Monument, capping a year in which frenzied construction of ultramodern Olympic venues and other projects changed the face of Beijing. From Jan. 1, there will be 220 days until the start of the Aug. 8-24 Olympics.