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At year's end: 2013 marked by milestones and horror

By MARCELLA KREITER, United Press International   |   Dec. 22, 2013 at 3:01 AM
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2013 was a year of milestones and horror: the election of a new pope, the birth of a future king and horrific terrorist attacks in Algeria, Kenya and the United States.

It was also a year of war, geopolitical jockeying and the deaths of people who left their marks on history.

The civil war in Syria dragged on, highlighted in August by the use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and maimed. The action brought threats of international retaliation until the regime of President Bashar Assad said it would allow international inspectors to assess its chemical arsenal and destroy it. By year's end, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was still trying to find a venue for elimination of the deadly material and plans were under way for talks that could resolve the conflict.

Unrest intensified in Iraq and Afghanistan as al-Qaida, the Taliban and their offshoots attempted to regain influence even as the United States attempted to work out a security agreement with Kabul to keep some U.S. troops in the area. Despite agreement on a plan to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was balking at signing the agreement.

China was flexing its regional muscles, claiming control of groups of islands also claimed by other countries. The most serious dispute centered on the Senkaku Islands -- known as the Diaoyu Islands in China -- claimed by Japan. By year's end, China had declared an air defense identification zone around the islands, threatening to shoot down any aircraft in the area that didn't comply with rules set by Beijing for traversing the islands. The action brought a sharp rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who criticized China for increasing tensions instead of looking for ways to alleviate them.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spent the year consolidating his power and antagonizing South Korea and the United States while at the same time indicating he wanted to return to the negotiating table to talk about the North's nuclear program. The North unilaterally closed a joint manufacturing facility in Kaesong, tested new missiles and issued bellicose statements contending it was under U.S. threat. Kim initiated a political purge in which his uncle and regent, Jang Song Thaek, was executed as a traitor. Observers said Kim had rejected Jang's efforts to rein in his nephew.

U.S. politics spent the year lurching from crisis to crisis as the Tea Party played havoc with congressional efforts to reach compromise on domestic issues. The year began with the so-called fiscal cliff narrowly averted but the brinksmanship was back when the government ran out of spending authority in October and the right balked at raising the debt ceiling yet again. The political bickering resulted in a 16-day partial federal government shutdown, largely blamed on Republicans. By year's end, with the national debt at more than $17 trillion, House and Senate negotiators led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., worked out a bipartisan resolution to give the United States its first fiscal budget since 2009.

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LOOKING BACK ...

JANUARY

Al-Qaida-linked terrorists attacked the natural gas operation in In Amenas, Algeria, leaving at least 37 foreign nationals dead. The facility was operated by the Algerian state oil company Sonatrack, British multinational energy company BP and the Norwegian state energy company Statoil. Seven-hundred Algerians and 107 foreigners were freed or escaped during the siege. Twenty-nine of 32 kidnappers were killed when Algerian forces stormed the plant.

FEBRUARY

Pope Benedict retired, the first pope to do so in six centuries.

The month included the death of Zhuang Zedong, who helped launch the "ping-pong diplomacy" that made rapprochement between China and the United States possible.

Colorful former New York Mayor Edward Koch also died.

MARCH

Pope Francis became the first cardinal from Latin America elected to lead the Roman Catholic Church. Francis is seen as bringing a new humility to the position. At year's end he was warning against the dangers of the growing divide between rich and poor.

Discretionary spending by Washington was cut 10 percent in the absence of an agreement on the U.S. federal budget. The action was known as the sequester and was supposed to be avoided because both Democrats and Republicans said they disliked the approach.

APRIL

Two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon April 15, killing three people and maiming more than 200 others. Two brothers of Chechen descent, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were named as the men who put pressure-cooker bombs into trash cans that exploded at the end of the race. The following Thursday, they allegedly killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer and then led police on a wild chase that ended in Watertown. The older brother, Tamerlan, 27, was shot multiple times by police and then run over by his brother as the younger man made his escape. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died of his wounds. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, was captured hiding in a boat in a back yard April 19 following a daylong search of the Watertown area. At year's end, he was held without bond, awaiting trial.

Alan Wood, the U.S. Navy officer who brought a flag from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Iowa Jima and the "Iron Lady," former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in April.

MAY

In a quiet neighborhood in Cleveland, three women who had been confined as long as a decade were rescued from a house owned by Ariel Castro, along with the 6-year-old daughter of one of the victims. Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight had suffered repeated rapes and other abuse by Castro. The three women were usually restrained when Castro left the home but on May 6 Berry managed to get loose and summon help. In July Castro pleaded guilty to kidnapping and rape and was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years. A month later, he committed suicide in his prison cell.

A monster tornado swept through Moore, Okla., near Oklahoma City, killing at least 51 people and injured dozens more. The twister was estimated at more than two miles wide and rated as an EF-5 with winds topping 200 mph.

JUNE

Hassan Rouhani, seen as a moderate, was elected president of Iran, replacing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election was viewed as a new era in Iranian politics although Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei still has the ultimate power.

Computer whiz Edward Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency, made off with classified documents that he released to Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post. The documents detailed NSA information-gathering programs and widespread surveillance of foreigners, including government leaders. Snowden fled the United States and was granted temporary asylum in Russia. By year's end, the United States was considering measures to rein in NSA programs.

Among those who died was Chen Xitong, the alleged mastermind of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing that left hundreds dead.

JULY

Nineteen elite Arizona firefighters died after they were trapped by the raging Yarnell wildfire, 80 miles northwest of Phoenix. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were trapped when winds changed and 100-foot flames overcame them as they took refuge in last-resort bag-like aluminum foil, woven silica and fiberglass shelters. At year's end commanders were blamed for making bad decisions.

A runaway freight train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, about 155 miles east of Montreal, and exploded, killing 47 people and devastating the town.

Detroit, long a city in decline, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry orchestrated a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The six- to nine-month process was to lead to the establishment of two independent states, but by year's end negotiations had bogged down althoujgh Palestinians said they would be willing to extend the talks if a framework could be established.

Pfc. Bradley Manning, who would now like to be known as Chelsea, was convicted by a military judge of violating the espionage act but was acquitted in a military trial of aiding the enemy by giving WikiLeaks 700,000 classified documents, which he obtained as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. In February, he had pleaded guilty to leaking classified material. He was sentenced in August to 35 years in prison (possibility of parole in eight) and at year's end was serving his sentence.

George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012, was acquitted of murder charges.

A future king was born July 22 to Prince William and his wife, Kate. Prince George is third in line to the thrown behind William and grandfather Prince Charles.

Among those who died was longtime UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas.

AUGUST

Poison gas was unleashed in the Damascus suburbs, leaving more than 1,000 dead or injured. Investigators concluded it could not have been rebels who used the weapons, despite such assertions from the Assad regime. The threat of international retaliation persuaded the regime to allow international inspectors to take control of the chemical stockpiles. At year's end, the stockpiles were still awaiting destruction.

SEPTEMBER

Following the U.N. General Assembly in New York, President Obama and his Iranian counterpart talked by phone -- the first direct communication between a U.S. president and Iranian leader in three decades. The call opened the way for discussions on Iran's nuclear program.

The International Criminal Court affirmed the war crimes sentence of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who helped foment violence in Sierre Leone.

Al-Shabaab terrorists opened fire on the upscale Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 67 people and injuring more than 200 during a four-day siege. By year's end, investigators said they believed four individuals carried out the attack. It was unclear whether they died or escaped in the melee following explosions that destroyed parts of the structure. So far, six people have been arrested for involvement in the incident.

Former Navy Reservist Aaron Alexis, who was working as a subcontractor, opened fire with a shotgun at the Navy Yard in Washington, killing 12 and wounding five before he was killed in an exchange of gunfire with security personnel. The words "better off this way" and "my E-L-F weapon" were carved into the stock of his weapon.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was stripped of virtually all power by the City Council after admitting he had smoked crack in a drunken stupor. At year's end he was trying to raise money to cover his legal bills and was planning to start a talk show, "Ford Nation," on YouTube.

Salustiano Sanchez, the world's oldest man, died at the age of 112, in Buffalo, N.Y.

OCTOBER

The Obama administration botched the rollout of the marketplace aspect of healthcare reform, putting at risk the success of President Obama's signature Affordable Care Act. States that did not set up their own healthcare exchanges where consumers could explore various plans and buy coverage experienced website crashes and extended wait times for page loading. The administration ordered an immediate overhaul of the site and by year's end it was able to handle 50,000 queries at a time but the number of people signing up for coverage was still lagging. Errors in transferring information to insurance companies also continued to plague the system.

Republican efforts to defund healthcare reform led to a 16-day partial federal government shutdown that added an estimated $2 billion to the federal deficit. Agreement eventually was reached on a continuing resolution to get the government going again but Republican demands remained unmet.

A gunman opened fire at Los Angeles International Airport, killing Transportation Security Administration agent Gerardo Hernandez. Paul Ciancia, 23, was charged with the crime. He had written a note saying he wanted to kill TSA agents to "instill fear in their traitorous minds." At year's end, Ciancia was being held without bond at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

Among those who died were former U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley and Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.

NOVEMBER

Iran and the P5+plus+1 -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany -- reached an interim agreement on containing Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions. Though the agreement was hailed as a breakthrough and seen as a possible easing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the West, Israel and Saudi Arabia remained skeptical of the understanding and warned Iran could not be trusted to follow through, that Tehran would just use the time to regroup and plunge ahead with its suspected nuclear weapons program.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed at more than 16,000 for the first time.

Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 and leaving more than 27,000 injured and nearly 1,800 missing. Damage was estimated at $805 million.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd shocked Australian politics by calling it quits. Rudd said the time was right for him to step aside although he would remain active on some issues.

DECEMBER

The name "Government Motors" was officially retired with the U.S. Treasury's sale of its remaining shares in General Motors. At the start of the recession in 2008, the government bailed out both GM and Chrysler with more than $50 billion. With the sale of the remaining shares in GM, treasury officials pegged the cost to taxpayers at $10 billion.

Congress gave final approval to its first budget resolution since fiscal 2009. But at year's end appropriations had yet to be approved and the U.S. Treasury warned the debt ceiling could again be reached in early February, setting up another opportunity for the Tea Party to bring the government to the brink.

The U.S. Federal Reserve said the economy had improved enough that the central bank could begin reducing it's monthly bond purchases. Beginning in January, the Fed will reduce its monthly purchases from $85 billion to $75 billion.

Nearly a year to the day marking the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., a gunman opened fire at a Colorado high school near both the 1999 Columbine attack and the 2012 Aurora theater shootings. The gunman, a student, shot himself to death as authorities closed in after he was unable to find the teacher he was seeking. He critically injured a female student.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela died. The anti-apartheid leader who spend much of his adult life in prison for fighting the white government had been in ill-health for years. At the funeral, President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raoul Castro, touching off speculation on what it could mean for U.S.-Cuban relations.

Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner was sentenced to home confinement for fondling women. He was forced to resign from office in August after 18 women accused him of making unwanted advances.

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