(CNSNews.com) - Like the shadow of a massive, mythical monster, its arrival long predicted and its intentions unclear, Y2K has begun its 24-hour race across the planet, timezone by timezone.
The new year brings promises of celebrations unprecedented in scale, but also sobering fears that terrorism or computer chaos caused by the "millennium bug" could mar the global party.
From Jerusalem to London to the cities of the United States, security forces have mounted large operations to counter any terrorist threat. Israeli police have the added security concerns raised by the fact today is the last Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan, and by the possibility doomsday cultists may try to cause mayhem in Jerusalem in a misguided bid to precipitate the Second Coming.
Across the world, government and private sector offices are being manned around the clock as countries wait anxiously to see whether their costly preparations for the Y2K bug have averted predicted disaster.
January 1, 2000 began in the remote islands of Kiribati and Tonga at 5 AM EST, greeted by the sounding of a shell horn, the ringing of church bells and fireworks displays.
One hour later, New Zealand became the first industrialized nation to begin the year 2000. Many countries have sent emergency teams to Wellington to monitor any early problems experienced there, and New Zealand will be sending vital information to an international Y2K cooperation center in the United States.
Early signs showed no disruption, with New Zealand's Reserve Bank announcing that all 24-hour banking systems were working.
Experts have warned that any damage from the bug could occur over weeks or even months. According to one prediction , less than 10 per cent of expected glitches attributed to Y2K would take place during the first two weeks of January.
Aware of the world's fixed attention, New Zealand's Y2K readiness body warned earlier that any problems - even those not related to the "millennium bug" - could damage the country's economy and image.
Congested telephone systems, ATMs running out of money or power failures could occur as a result of heightened demand on a very busy night. Even a drunk driver ramming an electricity pole could cause a minor blackout. Inevitably, the Y2K glitch would be blamed.
According to reports from New Zealand, there was a last-minute rush on batteries and bottled water.
At 8 AM EST, clocks in Australia are next to click over to 0:00 AM. More than a million people have crammed the streets and harborfront in Sydney, including tens of thousands in boats, to enjoy a huge midnight fireworks display.
Australian supermarkets also reported a customer rush, but retailing bodies said this was more likely to be the result of shops being closed over the holiday than Y2K fears.
Japan, which along with Korea begins the new year at 10 PM EST, has placed 96,000 troops and extra police officers on standby, while tens of thousands of government, utility and computer sector staff are working through the night in case of mishap.
Most Japanese routinely keep emergency supplies because of the country's vulnerability to natural disasters, but the government has nonetheless advised citizens to have a three-day supply of water, food and essentials. Japan is thought to be more at risk than other Western countries.
Near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, a special bell containing symbolic, melted-down remnants of a U.S. warship, a Russian helmet and an Israeli rifle will ring in the new year in a gesture South Korean official say illustrates their yearning for peace and reunification.
China enters 2000 one hour later. China has been named as one of the countries most susceptible to bug problems, but the authorities insist all is ready, and executives of three major airlines said they would fly their planes spanning midnight, to demonstrate publicly their confidence in their preparations.
Spanning 11 timezones, Russia's easternmost expanses began 2000 soon after Kiribati, although midnight will only arrive in Moscow at 4 PM EST. With thousands of nuclear missiles from the Soviet era, Russia will be watched anxiously for Y2K-compliance. Much of the rest of its infrastructure, however, is outdated and not particularly vulnerable to potential computer crashes.
As 2000 arrives in the Middle East, and then across Africa and Europe, and finally across the Americas, some of the world's most and least Y2K-ready countries will discover the extent to which their preparations have been sufficient.
The marking of New Year's Day and this year's additional "millennial" hype are largely Western phenomena.
The Islamic world is watching events, somewhat bemused. Iraq has declared January 1 a day of mourning for those who have died, Baghdad says, as a result of UN sanctions imposed against the regime since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Iranian newspapers have questioned the significance of the day, with Iran Daily saying there was nothing to celebrate.
"Poverty and hunger, wars and civil upheavals, disease, exploitation and embargoes are what the lot on this earth is afflicted with," the paper commented. "And the saddest part is that there is no visible signs that this tragic state of affairs will change in the near future."
The Tehran Times quoted lawmaker Majid Ansari as saying that "despite great scientific and technological achievements, the world is entering the third millennium [sic] with a lack of justice, equity and morality."
A writer in the Saudi newspaper Al-Jazira, suggested the West, suffering from a spiritual vacuum, had conned millions of dollars out of gullible Third World countries through the "myth" that serious problems would occur at the start of 2000.