The Week Ahead: Darker side to holiday revelry

HONG KONG is to throw a lavish New Year's party for 50,000 on Friday night, not so much as a gesture of confidence in what the new year will bring, but rather to attract revellers away from the tiny nightclub district where 22 people were crushed to death in the opening minutes of 1993.

There will be fortune-tellers, carnival games, a light show and live rock music at the event in Victoria Park, which is being organised by the colony's urban council and 14 private companies. But in case these counter-festivities fail to draw the crowds, police are taking no chances: they will restrict access to Lan Kwai Fong nightlife district to prevent any repetition of the tragedy.

In India too, there is a darker side to the holiday season. MPs reconvene on Wednesday and Thursday after a Christmas break to debate a scathing all-party report on the country's worst financial scandal. The report lays into the Finance Ministry, the central bank, stockbrokers and banks for their parts in a scandal in which money was siphoned illegally from the securities market to fuel a boom on the Bombay stock exchange.

In a more conciliatory atmosphere, Israel and the Vatican sign an accord in Jerusalem on Thursday calling for full diplomatic ties and a joint Jewish- Catholic commitment to fight anti-Semitism. The pact follows 17 months of talks that were given a fair wind by progress in the Middle East peace process. It is expected to lead to the exchange of ambassadors by the end of April.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin, and the Vatican's Under-Secretary for Foreign Relations, Monsignor Claudio Celli, are to approve the text on 'fundamental principles' in Rome on Wednesday and will travel together to Jerusalem for the signing ceremony.

Russians have to hand in all their foreign banknotes by Friday: from Saturday, all transactions in foreign cash will be banned. This is the authorities' latest attempt to cut down the sway of the mighty dollar, and it is expected to be of only limited success. And Friday is the last day that Russians can use their small-denomination rouble notes, the only ones that still bear the face of Lenin. From Saturday, they will be weighed down by coins.

Spain's two main unions, feeling weighed down by the country's 23 per cent unemployment, have combined to call a general strike today. The two union leaders have buried their traditional political rivalries to speak as one: 'The top priority has to be employment,' said the veteran socialist union leader Nicolas Redondo. 'The motto will be jobs and solidarity,' echoed his pro-Communist counterpart, Antonio Gutierrez.

Looking for a new holiday destination? Consider a new-year trip to Taiwan. From Saturday, Americans, most Europeans, Japanese, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders will no longer need a visa for visits of up to five days.

Also on Saturday, New Year's Day, Britain hands over reponsibility for the defence of Belize to the Belizeans, Belgium hands over the EU presidency to Greece and Lisbon takes over from Antwerp as the 1994 European City of Culture. New Year celebrations may be flatter than usual at the French fashion and perfume house Yves Saint Laurent: on Thursday all its 'Champagne' scent products are to be destroyed. An appeals court sided with the champagne producers who want to ban anything other than their own precious bubbly from being sold as champagne. Better to stick to the real thing then. Cheers.

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