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Carnival kicks off in Brazil

Brazil's Carnival kicked off Thursday with millions of people taking to the streets of the northeastern city of Salvador de Bahia to dance and party, effectively putting the nation on a week-long hiatus.

Over the coming days, the festivities will consume the entire country of 193 million people.

The climax arrives Sunday and Monday with Rio de Janeiro's extravagant and sexy parades, replete with near-naked dancing queens and over-the-top fantasy floats.

Even the capital Brasilia was suspending political and legislative work, with many lawmakers leaving town to enjoy the celebrations.

"Brazil's Carnival is a tradition. Nobody can resist the need to be part of it," the head of the senate, Jose Sarney, said.

Salvador de Bahia, with its heady melange of African rhythms and Portuguese colonial architecture, as usual was quickest to get the party started, playing host to dozens of street dance-and-drinking celebrations Thursday.

Google was inciting envy worldwide by broadcasting the fun there through its YouTube site.

The annual pre-Easter frenzy of non-stop partying, drinking, flirting and concerts in Brazil is a big tourist draw, especially for Rio, where authorities have cracked down in recent weeks and months on criminal gangs to improve the city's violent image.

Rio will join the festivities on Friday night, like most of the country.

Then, Sunday and Monday, the top Carnival parade groups - Rio's samba schools - will crown the rejoicing by filing through the 70,000-seat Sambadrome stadium for a global broadcast audience.

The parades are at once an exhibition of pride for the city's massive poor population, and a competition watched nationally as closely as any major football game.

Each of the 12 samba schools participating will deploy up to 5,000 dancers, and each will be lead by the sexily iconic "drum queens" - sculpted women in heels wearing little more than feathers, sequins and big smile.

Those schools spend between two million and five million dollars for their shows, most of it spent on floats bedecked with moving mythological creatures or allegories.

This year, three of the schools will be cheered on even louder for taking part despite seeing some or most of their preparations wiped out by a fire in their warehouses a month ago.

They have been working around the clock to replace their costumes and floats, and each has vowed that their spirit will make up for whatever props are missing.

Rio is treating the event as a showcase for its organizational skills ahead of its hosting of football games for the 2014 World Cup and then the 2016 Olympic Games.

Some 760,000 tourists are expected in the city for Carnival, dropping 600 million dollars into Rio's coffers.

With so much samba music, drinking and skimpy clothing on display, sex is a reality the government is tackling head on, notably by handing out 20 million free condoms.

Rio's officials have also launched a campaign to reinforce their city's reputation as a gay-friendly destination by cracking down on any discrimination.