Many braved freezing weather in Europe and North America to celebrate the New Year [Reuters]

Millions of people around the world have welcomed in 2009 with celebrations, calls for peace and hopes for an early end to the financial troubles that marked much of 2008.

Sydney was the first major city to see in the New Year, although New Zealand also staged a dramatic fireworks display from Auckland's Sky Tower two hours earlier

Over 500,000 people gathered in Paris to mark the New Year [AFP]

A record 1.5 million Australians and tourists converged on the Sydney harbour site close to the famous Opera House for what organisers said was the city's biggest-ever fireworks display.

From Australia the celebrations moved on to Asia, Hong Kong's iconic skyline and harbour provided a spectacular stage for New Year fireworks.

However, celebrations in Thailand were overshadowed by the deaths of at least 59 people in a fire at a Bangkok nightclub.

Police said fireworks let off in the club at midnight were thought to have triggered the blaze.

In Dubai, lavish New Year celebrations were cancelled in a mark of solidarity with the people of Gaza after six days of deadly bombardment by Israeli forces.

'Careful' celebrations

Cities around the world vied with each other to put on the most spectacular show [AFP]

In New York City huge crowds joined celebrations in Times Square to watch a giant cystal ball drop on the stroke of midnight.

Bill Clinton, the former US president, and his wife Hillary, were among the tens of thousands packed into the square.

Elsewhere after the most volatile financial year in decades, partygoers paused for a deep breath and a sip of something perhaps cheaper than champagne.

"We're not going to celebrate in a big way. We're being careful," Moussa Siham, an architect living in Paris, told the Associated Press.

In the French capital, over half a million people had already thronged on the Champs-Elysees an hour before the bells welcomed in the new year.

In London revellers also braved freezing conditions to see the fireworks spectacle on the banks of the River Thames, which engulfed the London Eye in a blaze of colour.

'Solidarity'

More than 2 million people welcomed the new year on Rio's Copacabana beach [Reuters]
An estimated 400,000 people were expected to have lined the embankments to catch the 10-minute display, which lit up the misty night sky over the British capital.

In the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI called for "soberness and solidarity" in 2009 at a special mass marking the end of the year.
 
He said the world faced times "marked by uncertainty and worry for the future", but urged people not be afraid and to help each other.

Celebrations across the world however, reflected an atmosphere where people were trying to forget their troubles for at least one night.

In Rio de Janeiro, more than two million people packed onto the city's famous Copacabana beach to watch a huge fireworks show.

Roberto Felipe, a construction worker in Brazil, told the Associated Press he hoped 2009 would mark "the end of war and crisis".

"I hope that 2009, which is bringing President Obama to the scene, will help us all have a better life."

Source: Agencies