ADDIS ABABA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Fireworks burst over Addis Ababa and couples kissed as crowds cheered the ''end of the dark ages'' in Millennium celebrations, seven years after the rest of the world according to their ancient calendar.
Whistles, car horns and sirens shook the air on the stroke of midnight as Ethiopia, following a calendar long abandoned by the West, entered the 21st century.
Tens of thousands of revellers swarmed the capital's main Meskel Square where soldiers stood guard over festivities Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said marked Ethiopia's renaissance.
Security forces held back surging crowds as partygoers, many wearing the red, gold and green of the national flag, sang and danced in streets lit by flashing fairy lights.
''My life and the life of all Ethiopians have come together tonight,'' said 29-year-old Solomon Melese. ''We are one.'' Hours earlier, Meles, clad in a traditional white robe, announced a ''glorious new page'' in the history of a country that, from the 1980s, became for many in the outside world a byword for poverty, hunger and conflict.
''A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia,'' he said.
''They shall say that the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the Ethiopian renaissance.'' DARK AGES Ethiopia's 81 million people can boast that their country, famed for being the cradle of humanity after the discovery of a 3-million-year-old skeleton named ''Lucy'', was the only African nation not to be colonised.
But ''the darkness of poverty and backwardness'' had dimmed Ethiopia's proud reputation, Meles said.
''We cannot but feel deeply insulted that at the dawn of the new millennium ours is one of the poorest countries in the world.'' Meles was speaking at a newly built exhibition hall where U.S. hip hop group Black Eyed Peas later performed for foreign dignitaries and the capital's elite.
Many Ethiopians stayed away from the official event, seen by critics as a government project, preferring to party for free in a sports ground rather than pay 170 dollar, the equivalent of two months' wages, to rub shoulders with the great and good.
Some in Addis Ababa, an opposition stronghold, were angry about the government's campaign to clear the streets of tens of thousands of beggars and the spiralling cost of food in the Millennium countdown.
''I don't think much will change,'' said Belai Kassa. ''Most of us will stay poor.'' Ethiopians are wondering what drama the future may hold after the last century saw a king deposed, the ouster of a military dictator whose ''Red Terror'' purges terrorised the nation, and a troubled experiment with democracy.
Criticised by the international community for an opposition crackdown after disputed 2005 polls, the government released nearly 18,000 prisoners across the country this week.
Of those 230 were political prisoners, including 35 members of the rebel Oromo Liberation Front, sentenced between 10 years and life imprisonment, the pro-government Walta Information Center said.
Reuters TB VP0617