Ethiopia rings in Millennium with fireworks, prayers

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ADDIS ABABA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Fireworks exploded and the faithful knelt in prayer as Ethiopia finally greeted a new Millennium today.

Tens of thousands of revellers packed the capital's main Meskel Square for festivities Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said marked Ethiopia's renaissance.

Ethiopia follows a calendar long abandoned by the West, that squeezes 13 months into every year, and entered the 21st century seven years after the rest of the world.

Meles 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.'' Whistles, car horns and sirens shook the air on the stroke of midnight.

As dawn melted the mist shrouding the highland city of Addis Ababa, worshippers wrapped in traditional white robes flocked to church, crossing paths with partygoers returning from a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.

''I've come for God's blessing,'' said Michele Fantaye, smearing ash on his forehead.

''I hope the next 1,000 years will deliver peace and unity.'' DARK AGES After the discovery of 3-million-year-old skeleton named ''Lucy'', Ethiopia's 81 million people can claim their country was the cradle of humanity and 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,'' he said.

He was speaking at a new exhibition hall where US hip hop act Black Eyed Peas performed for dignitaries, including regional leaders, and the capital's elite.

Many Ethiopians stayed away from the official event, regarded by critics as a government project.

They preferred to party for free in a sports ground rather than pay 170 dollars, 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.'' A host of Millennium events were delayed or dropped because of security concerns in Ethiopia which is embroiled in Somalia's conflict, locked in a bitter border row with Eritrea, and fighting separatist rebels in its Ogaden region.

Criticised by the international community for an opposition crackdown after disputed 2005 elections, the government released nearly 18,000 prisoners this week.

Of those 230 were political prisoners, including 35 members of the rebel Oromo Liberation Front, pro-government Walta Information Centre said.

Reuters CS DS1400

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