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Man and nature wreak havoc during turbulent year

IT was the year of meteorites and typhoons, the Boston bombers and the death of Nelson Mandela.

DEVASTATION: Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November.
DEVASTATION: Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November.

In all, 2013 has been a turbulent year on the international news front.

The tone was set early on when al Qaeda-linked terrorists affiliated with a brigade led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar took more than 800 people hostage at the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria on January 16.

Some were shot. Others hid and hoped. In all, 39 foreign hostages were killed along with an Algerian security guard and 29 militants. The In Amenas attack was an ominous harbinger of things to come. In the US in April it was two pressure cooker bombs placed by other jihadists that brought havoc and death to the Boston Marathon.

On September 21, the Kenyan capital Nairobi was the target of another part of the al Qaeda franchise. Somalia's al Shabab launched a brutal assault on the Westgate Shopping Mall. A total of 67 people lost their lives.

On Valentine's Day, the world awoke to the shocking news that Reeva Steenkamp, 29, the girlfriend of paralympian Oscar Pistorius, had been shot dead in the early hours.

Pistorius, 27, is believed to have told police he shot her thinking she was an intruder at their home in Pretoria, South Africa. The sprinter has since been charged with her murder and is awaiting trial.

March saw the sentencing in the US of Ohio gunman TJ Lane, who sneered and revealed a T-shirt with the slogan "killer" as he was given three life terms for murder.

Nature brought a considerable degree of suffering this year.

Wildfires in Tasmania, Australia, took hold at the start of the year and raged for several months, and in scenes straight from a science-fiction movie meteorites shot from the sky injuring hundreds in Russia in February. A deadly earthquake hit China's Sichuan in April, Oklahoma was overwhelmed by a tornado in May, and in November Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history, destroyed entire villages and towns and killed more than 5000 people in the Philippines.

Natural turmoil was matched by economic turbulence. The US city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July, Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1 billion in May, and the markets watched as the government of Cyprus made controversial plans to tax bank deposits in March. Oh, and we saw the rise and demise of digital currency bitcoin.

In August, television news pictures brought the unforgettable scenes from the Syrian neighbourhoods around Ghouta near Damascus, as innocent victims of a chemical weapons attack were seen convulsing and struggling for breath. The images and the damning evidence brought the US and other Western powers to the brink of military intervention in Syria. The world watched and worried, before a Moscow initiative allowed for a diplomatic opt-out from using military muscle.

This was only the latest dangerous twist in the evolution of what was once optimistically dubbed the Arab Spring uprisings, which in 2013 also saw the Egyptian Army oust President Mohammad Morsi. He now faces trial on charges including "conspiring with foreign organisations to commit terrorist acts".

Some international stories never make the headlines they deserve. The collapse In April of the Rana Plaza building, housing several factories making clothing for European and American consumers, is a point in case. More than 1100 Bangladeshi workers, many earning as little as $38 a month, were crushed under tons of falling concrete and steel. It became the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.

Russia, however, was often in the headlines this year. Not least for providing sanctuary to Edward Snowden, the American former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor-turned-whistleblower who disclosed up to 1.7 million classified documents to media outlets. Even now the political reverberations of this are still being felt and they will continue to do so in 2014.

But if Mr Snowden was given sanctuary, Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock protest group based in Moscow, were faced with detention. In a more recent conciliatory gesture - not usually associated with political hardman President Putin - the band members were pardoned in December along with Russian former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and a number of Greenpeace environmental activists.

Some observers say Mr Putin's amnesty law is an attempt to defuse international criticism of a human rights crackdown before the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in February. Others say it will need much more than gestures of this kind to convince the wider world of Moscow's benign influence as it continues to put pressure on its neighbour, Ukraine.

In a year that saw scientists successfully clone human stem cells in May and Tokyo win the bid to host the 2020 Olympics in September, there was a new found hope of diplomatic rapprochement between Iran and the West with the the election of President Hassan Rouhani in June. This despite recent spats over alleged activities of British MI6 agents in Iran.

When President Barack Obama met with his Iranian counterpart - who studied at Glasgow Caledonian University - in September it was hailed as a breakthrough in relations between the two countries. It was welcome news for Mr Obama, who has had a tricky 2013.

Through most of October he faced the shutdown of the US federal government that curtailed most routine operations after Congress failed to enact legislation appropriating funds for fiscal year 2014. About 800,000 federal employees were indefinitely furloughed, and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates. Regular government operations only resumed on October 17 after an interim bill was signed into law.

Amid the turmoil and rancour there has been world news that gladdens the heart. Facebook has conducted a comprehensive review of its massive user-base to compile a list of Top-10 Life Events in 2013, and no doubt many of us will be reassured to find out that falling in love, getting engaged, or getting married came in at number one, while getting a new pet and getting piercings were placed seventh and ninth respectively.

If one story made truly global headlines in 2013, it was the passing of Nelson Mandela on December 5. South Africa faces a looming election without his towering presence. He was a great loss to his nation and the wider world.

Have a Happy New Year, wherever you are in the world.

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