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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 February 2007, 12:51 GMT
Fragile N Orleans marks carnival
Women throw beads to the crowd on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans on 16 Feb
New Orleans is hoping for increased crowds this year
New Orleans, which is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina some 18 months ago, is preparing to kick off its annual Mardi Gras celebrations.

Two people were killed and seven others wounded in two shootings ahead of the first unofficial events which started on Friday night.

Police say it hopes the unrelated violence will not scare visitors away.

Before Katrina, a million people used to visit New Orleans for the carnival. The 2006 figure was about 700,000.

Neither incident occurred at Mardi Gras events and were not random, but targeted shootings, police said.

Two men were shot dead and another man was shot on Thursday evening while in a car in the Ninth Ward, one of the areas devastated by Katrina.

Early on Friday, six people were wounded in a Mid-City nightclub shooting. The gunman managed to escape with the crowd which stampeded out of the club in panic, police said.

A wave of murders has blighted New Orleans since the beginning of the year.

Mayor Ray Nagin, who has been criticised for not addressing the problem, said he was "deeply saddened that our young people continue dying in our streets" and called New Orleans "our fragile city that is still on the journey to recovery".

Second carnival post-Katrina

This is the second carnival since Katrina struck the city in August 2005, when some 1,300 people were killed in the ensuing floods.

The population of New Orleans fell from nearly 500,000 to less than 200,000.

Various celebrities are attending the celebrations, including actor James Gandolfini, of TV series The Sopranos, and members of the New Orleans Saints football team.

The carnival marks the day before the Christian period of Lent begins, and is traditionally a raucous occasion.

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