New Year's Eve celebrations underway

Revellers around the world are ushering in 2012 and saying goodbye to 2011, a year many would as soon forget.

Auckland, N.Z., first major city to welcome 2012

Revellers around the world are ushering in 2012 and saying goodbye to 2011, a year many would as soon forget.

At 6 a.m. ET, Auckland, N.Z., became the first major city to welcome the new year, where thousands of residents gathered to watch the city's annual fireworks display.

And in a year when floods and tsunamis ravaged many parts of the world, New Zealand's capital, Wellington, was hit with heavy rains, prompting officials to cancel planned celebrations, Bloomberg reported.

Scary night 

Despite a government scare campaign, firecrackers and gunfire injured nearly 500 people in the Philippines as revellers welcomed the new year in one of the world's most raucous and dangerous celebrations.

About a dozen flights were diverted or cancelled early Sunday after dark smog caused by a night of firecracker explosions obscured visibility at Manila's airport, officials said.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona said the number of injuries — 454 from firecracker blasts and 18 from stray bullets — was slightly lower than last year but remained alarming.

A 5.3-magnitude earthquake in the city of Christchurch earlier Saturday put a damper on local festivities, but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries, Reuters said. It was the latest in a string of quakes to jolt the city since a major temblor killed nearly 200 people there last February.

Revellers in Australia, Asia, Europe and the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, which jumped across the international date line to be first to celebrate, welcomed 2012 with booming pyrotechnic displays. Fireworks soared and sparked over Moscow's Red Square, crowds on Paris' Champs-Elysees boulevard popped Champagne corks at midnight, and up to a million revellers were expected to jam New York's Times Square for the famed crystal-paneled ball drop.

But many approached the new year with more relief than joy, as people battered by weather disasters, joblessness and economic uncertainty hoped the stroke of midnight would change their fortunes.

"Once the ball drops, I won't give 2011 another thought," said Kyralee Scott, 16, of Jackson, N.J., whose father spent most of the year out of work. "It was a pretty tough year, but God was looking after us and I know 2012 has got to be better."

In Australia, more than a million people converged on the shores of Sydney Harbour to take in a midnight fireworks show. This year's display was designed around the theme "Time to Dream," a nod to the eagerness many felt at moving forward after the rough year.

Worldwide countdown

Beijing held its first western-style New Year's Eve countdown, with a light show at the Taoist Temple of Heaven. In Hong Kong, officials were anticipating that more than 400,000 people would watch a four-minute, $1-million US display of fireworks light up Victoria Harbour.

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 rang 108 times to purify the world of evil and bring good luck.

A number of world leaders also issued New Year's messages, and many alluded to the problems that seemed to define 2011, from natural disasters to political and economic upheaval.

In the case of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he said he wanted to help ensure that democratic reforms sought by Arab Spring protesters continue in 2012.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the new year would be more challenging than 2011, but said that dealing with Europe's debt crisis would help bring the eurozone countries grow closer together.

In Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI marked the end of 2011 with prayers of thanks and said humanity awaits the new year with apprehension but also with hope for a better future.

"Another year approaches its end, while we await a new one, with the trepidation, desires and expectations of always," Benedict said at the traditional New Year's Eve vespers service, as he delivered his homily from the central altar of St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday evening.

In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wished well-being and prosperity to all Russians "regardless of their political persuasion," despite recent protests against his leadership sparked by accusations of electoral fraud.

Dozens of protesters were reportedly arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg at anti-Putin demonstrations on Saturday.

Authorities in Berlin expected a million people to gather around the city's landmark Brandenburg Gate for a massive party complete with live performances from the Scorpions and other bands, as well as a 10-minute firework display.

In New York, hundreds of thousands gathered in Times Square to witness a crystal ball with more than 30,000 lights as it descended at midnight. Lady Gaga and Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the crowd in the final-minute countdown of the famed crystal-paneled ball drop. Canadian pop star Justin Bieber was a featured performer at the event.

With files from The Associated Press