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Lunar New Year fireworks displays down in Beijing following government air pollution appeals

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BEIJING, China - The annual Lunar New Year fireworks barrage in Beijing was notably muted following government appeals to reduce the smoky celebrations after air pollution rose to near catastrophic levels over recent weeks.

The holiday was also being celebrated in Vietnamese and Korean communities, and in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, streams of residents offered flowers and bowed deeply before giant statues of national founder Kim Il Sung and his son and late leader Kim Jong Il.

In Jakarta, Indonesia, where Chinese cultural observances had been suppressed before 1998, ethnic Chinese flocked to the city's oldest temple Sunday to pray for health and success.

China's capital saw almost twice the number of smoggy days as usual in January, with levels of small particle air pollution going off the charts at times. That prompted calls for restraint, along with a reduction in the number of licensed fireworks sellers and the amount of fireworks on sale.

The fusillades that began on Lunar New Year's eve on Saturday night started later than usual but still grew to furious intensity at midnight. They also died out earlier than usual on Sunday morning, and relatively few explosions were heard during the day.

Setting off fireworks to celebrate renewal and ward off evil spirits is a traditional part of the celebration that marks China's most important family holiday.

Sales of fireworks from Tuesday to Saturday fell 37 per cent over the same period last year, from 410,000 cartons to just 260,000, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing figures from the city government. The city authorized 1,337 fireworks stands this year, down from 1,429 last year, and allowed 750,000 cartons of fireworks to go on sale, down from 810,000.

The Beijing Daily, the city government's official newspaper, carried appeals last week for residents to hold off on fireworks celebrations, saying not doing so would significantly worsen levels of PM2.5 particle pollution forecast to be in the hazardous zone. City environmental bureau readings showed levels well above 200 in most parts of the city Sunday, dangerous but still well below readings of more than 700 seen last month, when Beijing experienced 23 days of smog, up from 10 the previous January.

Beijing was largely helpless in the face of the January smog, while schools cancelled outdoor activities, some factories closed and government cars were ordered off the streets. Scores of people, especially the young and elderly, were treated at hospitals for respiratory problems, elevated blood pressure and heart complaints.

Last year's fireworks display created a thick haze that sent 2.5 microgram pollution levels as high as 1,500.

Beijing on Saturday night also saw just 25 injuries and 83 fire emergencies related to fireworks, down almost 29 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively, from last year.

Beijing permits fireworks displays over a 16-day period surrounding the Lunar New Year, but largely restricts them to suburban areas outside the densely populated city centre.

The holiday will continue through the week, with government and businesses shut down and millions of Chinese travelling to their home towns to visit family. Many foreign residents also leave the city, taking the opportunity to enjoy warmer weather in Southeast Asia or travel to Japan and South Korea for skiing holidays.

Chinese leaders have made few public appearances in recent days, although state broadcaster CCTV said new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping visited Saturday with policemen, subway construction workers, taxi drivers and street cleaners in Beijing to thank them for their service.

Premier Wen Jiaobao, who has made a point of spending the holiday eve with workers and the poor, celebrated the last such occasion of his term in office with victims of earthquakes and landslides in western China, CCTV said. Wen steps down in March.

The holiday took on a strong political flavour in North Korea, where current leader Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, recently marked his second year in office.

"My longing for our great leader and general has grown stronger as I visited their statues," Pyongyang resident Kim Son Sil told The Associated Press at Mansu Hill, which overlooks the city. "After this Lunar New Year's Day, I will work harder, true to the leadership of Marshal Kim Jong Un."

Crowds of children also packed a Pyongyang plaza and played traditional Korean games and watched singing and dancing performances, with the capital's streets covered in snow that had fallen Saturday.

Along North Korea's border with China last week, impoverished residents could be seen returning home by bicycle ferry and oxcart. North Korea's economy is on the brink of collapse, and the country remains dependent on China for food and fuel supplies.

At Jakarta's 350-year-old Buddhist temple, Vihara Dharma Bhakti, thousands of celebrants from the Indonesian capital and surrounding regions prayed before burning incense sticks and performed other rituals.

"Our hope for this new year is for our health, well-being and success to be even better than last year," worshipper Nio Ju-ie said.

The Lunar New Year could be celebrated only in private under Gen. Suharto's brutal 32-year dictatorship, but the occasion is now a national holiday in Indonesia, honouring the country's small but highly influential Chinese community.

___

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

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