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Top world news stories of 2011 |

Top world news stories of 2011

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
| Sunday, January 1, 2012 12:00 a.m

Top 10 list


On May 2, a team of Navy SEALs on a raid into Abbottabad, Pakistan,?took the life of Osama bin Laden, ending the reign of terror of the?al-Qaida leader who claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and?the 1998 bombings of American embassies in two east African capitals,?among other strikes.

More than a dozen years after President Clinton signed an order for?the apprehension of bin Laden and authorizing the use of deadly force?against him, bin Laden’s campaign against the United States was ended,?leaving al-Qaida in the hands of longtime cohort Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The mission that killed bin Laden hampered U.S. relations with?Pakistan, whose partnership in the war on terror is valued by?Washington. The Pakistani military took the cross-border raid as an?affront to the nation’s sovereignty. The United States held suspicions?that some Pakistani authorities were harboring bin Laden, stoked by?the fact that terror leader resided in a complex less than a mile from?a military academy considered Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.

2. Libya/Gadhafi

For almost 42 years since a bloodless military coup, Moammar Gadhafi?held chief sway over Libya. The nation became a pariah largely because?of state-sponsored terrorism directed by the man president Reagan?called “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Eventually, Gadhafi sought to?normalize international relations, agreeing to a $2.7 billion?settlement with families of victims of the bombing of Pan Am flight?103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and dismantling his weapons of mass?production programs.

His reconciliation efforts brought him little international sympathy,?however, when “Arab Spring” protests came to Libya in February. By the?end of the month, rebels held a large swath of the nation’s east, and?Gadhafi’s crackdown had escalated into violence. The United Nations?soon voted to freeze the regime’s international assets. In March, NATO?imposed a no-fly zone to keep Libyan air power out of the crackdown.

Meanwhile, protests escalated into civil war.

By the end of September, Libya’s rebels had control of much of?Tripoli, Including Gadhafi’s stronghold. And rebel forces seized?Gadhafi on Oct. 20. and shot him dead, ending a four-decade regime.

The National Transitional Council, which was tasked with setting up a?new government, estimated that 25,000 Libyans perished in the fight.

The council has pledged to hold national elections by April.

3. Arab Spring

In almost 30 years as Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak survived six?assassination attempts and was an often-divisive figure at home. He?ruled the nation for his entire tenure under its oppressive emergency?law provisions that expand police powers and curb civic freedoms. He?was also accused of condoning and participating in corrupt activities?that allowed him to amass personal wealth of as much as $80 million.

But he often served as a key ally to the West within the Arab world?and an intermediary for Israel in its peace talks with the?Palestinians.

So while the toppling of Mubarak in Arab Spring protests was much celebrated in Egypt,?President Obama was lambasted by opponents for abandoning a longtime?and staunch American ally. Critics suggested the move allowed the?Muslim Brotherhood or a harder-line Islamist party to position itself?for the implementation of radical Islamic policy in what had been a?relatively moderate state. Parliamentary voting that began in December appeared poised to give the Muslim Brotherhood the lead role in the legislature and the harder-line Salafi party significant clout.

Protests that started Jan. 25 ousted Mubarak in just 18 days. The?relatively peaceful confrontation claimed about 850 lives.

In mid-March, Arab Spring protests arose in Syria, where Bashar Assad?and his father, Hafez, had held power for 40 years. Amid a fierce crackdown, casualties mounted at a rate far?exceeding that of most Arab Spring nations. By mid-December, the?civilian death toll eclipsed 5,000. While the death toll mounted, so?did international pressure on the Assad regime to meet opposition?demands?U.S., European and even Arab League sanctions did little to sway the?Assad regime.

As the year progressed, Syria was in the midst of an armed conflict that either constituted or approached a?civil war.

The turmoil started in Tunisia in December 2010, when an defiant act of self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi sparked a popular uprising that drove leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.

Protests struck more than a dozen nations. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who has agreed to step down by February 2012 in exchange for immunity from prosecution in his crackdown on protests, would be the fourth leader toppled by the unrest. He had been relied upon by Western nations as an ally against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a terror offshoot based in Yemen that the CIA Director David Petraeus called the biggest threat in “global jihad.”

4. Japanese earthquake/tsunami

On March 11, one of the five most powerful earthquakes ever recorded?struck of the coast of Japan, triggering a huge tsunami, exceeding 30?feet in places, that pounded the nation’s northeast. More than 15,800?people perished in the disaster.

The energy radiated by the temblor was equal to the power consumption?of the United States for a month, and the strength of the temblor was?such that the island of Honshu moved eight feet to the east and?shortened the length of a day, speeding up the earth’s rotation by 1.6?microseconds.

Because of its power and the fact that it happened hundreds of miles?north of where experts predicted the next “big one” would occur, the?earthquake found a vulnerable area in Japan’s elaborate safety?measures. Despite what are considered the world’s strongest building?standards to prevent damage from seismic events, which frequently?strike Japan, more than 125,000 homes and buildings were destroyed or?seriously damaged.

Among those were reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant,?adding to a monumental natural disaster the threat of a man-made one.

Three reactor meltdowns displaced 100,000 people, likely made areas?around the plant uninhabitable for decades and tainted some of the?nation’s food supply with radioactivity.

5. European economic crisis

In Spain, Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was forced to?step down; Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative People’s Party,?was poised to take the reins after his party’s victory in November?elections.Civil servant Jose Vazquez said of the election, “We can

choose the sauce they will cook us in, but we’re still going to be?cooked.”

Portuguese Socialist leader Jose Socrates resigned in March; Pedro?Passos Coelho of the more conservative Social Democrats took power in?June. In Ireland, February elections also moved the nation to the?right.

In Greece, Socialist leader George Papandreou stepped down to allow?economist Lucas Papademos to run a transitional government that would?oversee a $180 billion European Union bailout as the nation prepares?for elections in February. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was forced from a?17-year reign in which he survived numerous scandals. He was also?replaced by an economist, Mario Monti, who could have the helm until a?2013 vote.

Troubled economies in Europe increasingly turned to new governments?that promised stringent austerity measures that threatened popular but?expensive social programs.

The move to austerity measures was buttressed by external pressure, as?troubled nations’ economic partners insisted on standards of fiscal?accountability across Europe. Britain notably abstained from a pact?among 26 EU members, including all 17 eurozone members, that would?impose economic sanctions on member nations that engaged in deficit?spending. The decision to relinquish some fiscal sovereignty in the?name of stability was a contoversial move for many Europeans.

6. Norway massacre

When a bombing and shooting spree claimed 77 lives in Norway on July?22, initial speculation was that Islamic terrorism had reached the?nation. The bomb strike on government buildings in Oslo killed eight,?and 69 people, mostly unarmed adolescents, were killed at a Labour?Party youth camp on Utoya island.

But the perpetrator turned out to be a Christian: blond-haired,?blue-eyed Anders Behring Breivik — for all intents and purposes the?Nordic archetype. And his professed motivation in the attacks that?injured 151 was to halt the spread of Islam in Europe. Breivik?reportedly accused the Labour Party of “treason” for encouraging?multiculturalism.

Despite the carnage, Breivik apparently won’t be sentenced to jail?time; the confessed killer was deemed legally insane, meaning he’d be?given mandated psychiatric care unless the courts overturned that?evaluation.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg vowed in the aftermath of?the attacks that Norway would remain “an open society.”

7. Iraq drawdown

After more than eight years of fighting, questions remained as to?whether the Iraqi government installed after the ouster of Saddam?Hussein could stand on its own. With about 4,500 Americans sacrificing?their lives in a conflict that might cost the United States $4?trillion before all is said and done, U.S. leaders seemed willing to?extend the nation’s troop presence if it would cement gains.

But the Iraqi government wouldn’t acquiesce to American demands that?its troops be immune from prosecution in Iraqi courts. As a result,?the advise-and-assist role of American troops will come to a close at?year’s end.

As 2012 begins, the United States will remove the last of nearly?50,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq after the 2010 end of combat?operations.

The withdrawal could leave Iraq vulnerable to violence within its?borders, but also sectarian divisions, to Iranian influence, or to a?host of other issues that could threaten the nation’s stability in the?volatile region.

8. Britain phone hacking

In 2007, News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and an associate, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, were jailed after convictions that they had hacked into phones of aides to the British royal family, government officials and celebrities. The U.K. tabloid dismissed the incident as the isolated work of a rogue reporter.

But in July, the list of phone hacking victims expanded to include a 13-year-old murder victim, relatives of fallen soldiers and victims of the 2005 terror attacks in London. And the list of those implicated in or accused of complicity the practice grew to include much of the tabloid’s staff, Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications director and bigwigs at parent company News International — all the way up the chain to Rupert Murdoch and his son James.

News of the World was shut down in July after 168 years of publishing. A $12 billion bid by Rupert Murdoch to take over British Sky Broadcasting was another casualty. In November, a probe concluded that other tabloids used much the same tactics as News of the World.

In December, an e-mail chain was released showing that James Murdoch had received and responded to missives discussing phone hacking as early as 2008. He had denied knowledge of the practice in testimony to Parliament and maintains that he did not read the entirety of the e-mail chain he responded to.

News International faces dozens of lawsuits in connection with the phone hacking scandal.

9. Mexico drug war

As 2010 wound to a close, the effort by President Felipe Calderon to combat violent drug cartels entered its fifth year with the reported number of “deaths due to criminal rivalry” at 34,612. The government has not kept its vow to update the tally since then. The reticence might be influenced by the apparent deterioration of the situation; U.S. observers have put the updated toll as high as 60,000.

And as the numbers rise, so does the brutality and visibility: bodies hung from bridges, truckfuls of corpses left in the street, severed heads dumped by an elementary school and the like. Cartels appear to be expanding their interests beyond drug trafficking to extortion, kidnapping, money laundering, human trafficking — just about any criminal enterprise that offers a profit. In December, reports suggested that a significant chunk of the populace suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Calderon and government officials characterize the burgeoning violence as a sign of success rather than of failure. They contend that mounting atrocities are evidence of desperate cartels turning to desperate tactics, citing the capture or killing of more than half of the 37 most-wanted crime bosses on a list released in 2010.

Government, police and prison officials continue to be shown to be acting in accordance with cartels’ wishes, either out of fear or because of bribery. But American law enforcement agencies have reportedly returned the favor by building a network of informants that have infiltrated the cartels as the United States works to keep violence contained south of the border.

10. U.S.-Pakistan

Good relations with Pakistan are seen as critical to war efforts in Afghanistan and against global terror. Key supply lines to NATO troops in Afghanistan run through its neighbor, and Pakistan’s mountainous northwest provides a haven for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. Moreover, instability and radicalism in the nation are widely feared because of its nuclear arsenal.

But much of its citizenry holds a deep-seated animosity towards the United States, and its disjointed ruling apparatus means that good relations with its government don’t ensure good relations with its military or intelligence services.

So when Raymond Davis, who had been employed as a contractor with the U.S. consulate in Pakistan, shot and killed two men in January, it was an immediate blow to relations. Despite claims of self-defense and diplomatic immunity Davis was jailed and charged with double murder. He was released in March upon the payment of $2.4 million in compensation to victims’ families, but anger over the event did not dissipate.

The May killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden angered the military, which decried the violation of sovereignty, and citizenry, many of whom sympathized with the terror leader. U.S. mistrust of Pakistani military and intelligence organizations grew with the suspicion that bin Laden had received willing shelter.

In September, attacks on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, were blamed on the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”

After a late November cross-border airstrike killed 24 of its soldiers, Pakistan shut down shipping lanes to Afghanistan, boosted air defense on its border, and told its troops they could return fire against any supposed aggressor without consulting central command. In December, a move was made to reopen the shipping lanes — but with a levy that could boost the cost of shipments through the country by as much as a third.

With the extensive discord, the United States is on shaky ground with a valued — if not trusted — ally even as it begins to withdraw forces from Afghanistan.


Jan. 1: Estonia adopts the euro, becoming the 17th eurozone nation.

Jan. 2: A magnitude 7.1 earthquake shakes southern Chile, sparking fear of a tsunami.

Jan. 11-12: Parts of Brazil get a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours, starting a flurry of floods and mudslides that leave 903 dead.

Jan. 24: Bombing at Moscow’s Domedovo Airport kills 37, injures 180.

Feb. 15: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces trial on charges he paid a 17-year-old Moroccan girl for sex and then used his influence to cover it up.

Feb. 22: A magnitude 6.3 earthquake hits Christchurch, New Zealand. Battered by a magnitude-7.1 quake six months earlier, the vulnerable, damaged city loses 181 people in the quake.

April 11: Ivory Coast’s former President Laurent Gbagbo is arrested at his home, clearing the way for internationally recognized election winner Alassane Outtara to officially take office, ending a civil war.

April 29: An estimated 2 billion people worldwide watch the wedding of Britain’s Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

May 26: Gen. Ratko Mladic, accused of genocide and other war crimes in the Bosnian War, is arrested by Serbian police.

June 2: Scientists blame Europe’s worst recorded food-poisoning outbreak on “super toxic” E. coli bacteria that may be new. At least 18 are dead.

July 7: A life-saving windpipe transplant in Sweden is the first to use an organ grown entirely from the patient’s own stem cells.

July 9: Under terms of a January referendum South Sudan declares independence from Sudan.

Aug. 23: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, is freed in New York after prosecutors question the credibility of the hotel maid who accused the ex-IMF leader of attempting to assault her in May.

Sept. 8: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calls for changes in the air transport industry as the country mourns a crash that killed 43 people, among them most of a top hockey team.

Sept. 10: At least 240 people are killed when a ferry sinks off the coast of Zanzibar.

Sept. 21: Iran frees two Americans detained by border guards during a July 2009 hike, a month after convicting the two as spies; a third hiker had been freed previously.

Sept. 25: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah decrees that women will for the first time have the right to vote and run in local elections due in 2015.

Sept. 30: American-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an accused al-Qaida terror recruiter with ties to would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Fort Hood shooting suspect Nidal Malik Hasan and others, is killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.

Oct. 3: An Italian appeals court overturns the murder convictions of American Amanda Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in the 2007 slaying of Knox’s roommate Meredith Kercher.

Oct. 4: Islamist militia al-Shabaab carries out a truck bombing on the Mogadishu headquarters of the Somali transitional govern-ment, killing more than 100.

Oct. 7: The Nobel Peace Prize goes to three women: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman, who has long pushed for change in Yemen.

Oct. 11: Two Iranians are charged in New York with an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Oct. 12: Severe flooding threatens the Thai capital, Bangkok, and kills more than 650 people.

Oct. 18: Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years, is released in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian and Arab prisoners held by Israel.

Oct. 23: A magnitude-7.2 earthquake hits the city of Van, eastern Turkey, killing 644 people.

Oct. 31: United Nations marks world population surpassing 7 billion.

Dec. 11: A U.N. climate conference reaches agreement on a far-reaching program meant to set a new course for the global fight against climate change.

Dec. 13: Physicists announce they are closing in on an elusive subatomic particle, the Higgs boson, that, would confirm a long-held understanding about how the universe’s fundamental building blocks behave.

Dec. 17: North Korea dictator Kim Jong-il dies; he is succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un.

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