Among the highlights of the main World news events for January and February 2016 are — Iranian protesters storm the Saudi embassy; North Korea tests hydrogen nuclear device; the world’s most wanted drug boss is arrested; legendary rock star David Bowie dies; tourists are killed in a suicide bombing in Istanbul; Islamist gunmen storm hotel in Burkina Faso; Iran releases American prisoners; sanctions are lifted on Iran; WHO declares emergency over Zika virus; more than a 100 killed in Taiwan quake; dozens killed in train crash in Germany kills; Syrian government launches offensive in Aleppo and a charity hospital is bombed in Idlib.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (AL ARABIYA) – Saudi Arabia said it executed 47 people for terror charges on January 2, including prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Although most of the 47 men killed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, it was Nimr and three other Shi’ites, all accused of involvement in shooting police, who attracted most attention in the region and beyond.
Nimr al-Nimr’s death sparked angry protests across the Middle East, with protesters in Tehran storming the Saudi embassy
In response, Riyadh cut ties with Tehran on January 3 in an escalating row between the rival Middle East powers.
Tensions between revolutionary, mainly Shi’ite Iran and Saudi Arabia’s conservative Sunni monarchy have run high for years as they backed opposing forces in wars and political conflicts across the region.
North Korea said it successfully conducted a test of a miniaturised hydrogen nuclear device on January 6.
The announcement on North Korean state broadcaster KRT followed detection of a 5.1 magnitude earthquake near its known nuclear test site.
The nuclear test was the fourth by the isolated country, which is under U.S. and UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile programmes.
The Mexican government released dramatic video footage showing marines firing shots during a raid on January 8, that led to the arrest of the world’s most wanted drug boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Images show marines going upstairs into a bedroom where Guzman initially gave Mexican security forces the slip by opening a secret doorway hidden behind a mirror, and descending into a sophisticated tunnel leading to the city’s drains.
Before he was caught, Guzman spent hours below ground as his henchmen sought to lure pursuing Marines up toward the roof of the house he had been holed up in, in Los Mochis in his native state of Sinaloa. As rain started to fill the drains, Guzman eventually emerged from a manhole near a gas station a mile (1.5 km) across town and stole a car at gunpoint.
The infamous head of the Sinaloa drug cartel was finally arrested on January 8 after a six month-long manhunt following his escape in July 2015 by tunnelling out from a Mexican maximum security prison.
Many in towns and villages across Mexico will remember Guzman for his squads of assassins who committed thousands of murders, kidnappings and decapitations.
David Bowie, the legendary rock star died from cancer on January 10. The visionary British musician, who coupled hits such as “Space Oddity” with trend-setting pop personas like “Ziggy Stardust”, died aged 69, just two days after releasing what appears to be the parting gift of a new album, “Blackstar”.
Bowie had kept a low profile after having emergency heart surgery in 2004 and kept his battle with cancer secret from his fans.
A suspected Islamic State (I.S.) suicide bomber thought to have crossed from Syria killed at least 10 people, most of them German tourists, in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet square, near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia on January 12.
Turkey has become a target for Islamic State, with two bombings in 2015 blamed on the radical Sunni Muslim group.
At least 28 people from 18 different nationalities died and others were taken hostage when Islamist gunmen stormed the ‘Splendid Hotel’ in the capital city of Burkina Faso on January 15.
The Ouagadougou attack was claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and marked an expansion of operations for Islamist militants who are stepping up their activities, echoing the growth of Islamic State in the Middle East.
Burkina Faso security forces began an assault to reclaim the ‘Splendid Hotel’ in the early hours of January 16 and entered the lobby, part of which was on fire and freed around 30 hostages including the labour minister.
Until January 15, the landlocked nation, had largely been spared the violence that has plagued its neighbours but the storming comes as a setback to efforts by African governments, France and the United States to prevent attacks that have destabilised the region.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on January 16 that American prisoners in Iran would be on their way home shortly after being released from custody by Iran under a prisoner deal.
The U.S. said it pardoned Bahram Mechanic, Tooraj Faridi, and Khosrow Afghahi who were accused in 2015 of shipping electronics to Iran.
Mechanic and Afghahi were being held without bail in Houston, while Faridi was out on bail. All three are Iranian-American dual citizens and had pleaded not guilty.
On January 17, Iran in return released Jason Rezaian, a U.S.-born Iranian American who was arrested in 2014 and convicted of espionage in 2015 as he worked as a Washington Post correspondent in Iran, as well as retired Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.
Hekmati, had been visiting family in Iran in August 2011 when he was detained. Before making his trip, he had informed Iran’s interests section in Washington, D.C. of his military past, aware that it might arouse suspicion. But staff there said it “wasn’t a problem” and processed his paperwork routinely, his sister Sarah Hekmati told Reuters in 2013.
He went missing one evening when he was supposed to join a family gathering. Relatives found he was gone, along with his laptop, camera, mobile phone, and passport. Hekmati was later convicted of spying, a charge his relatives and the United States deny. He was sentenced to death, but that was commuted to a 10-year prison term. He finally arrived back in the U.S. on January 21 to his hometown of Flint, Michigan by private jet.
Also released by Iran were Iranian-American Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, who stayed behind, and American student Matthew Trevithick after 40 days in prison.
The prisoner swap was choreographed to coincide with a high-level diplomatic gathering in Vienna to seal the lifting of international sanctions on Iran in return for meeting its commitment to curb its nuclear programme.
Kerry in his statement also confirmed that the United States officially lifted nuclear sanctions after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had verified that Iran had fully implemented its required commitments under the nuclear deal.
The deal was the culmination of months of diplomatic contacts, secret talks and legal manoeuvring.
On January 17, President Hassan Rouhani hailed the nuclear deal with world powers as a “golden page” in Iran’s history.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of the Zika virus a “public health emergency of international concern” on February 1, due to its link to thousands of suspected cases of birth defects in Brazil.
The WHO had said in January the Zika virus, carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, was “spreading explosively” and could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas.
Brazil at that point, had reported some 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly, in which infants are born with smaller-than-usual brains and suspected a link between the condition and Zika.
The Taiwanese city of Tainan bore the brunt of a quake on February 6 which toppled a 17-storey apartment building killing at least 115 people of 117 quake victims.
The 6.7-magnitude quake hit Kaohsiung city at a depth of 15 km at 3:57 a.m. at the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday, with almost all the dead found in Tainan’s toppled Wei-guan Golden Dragon Building.
Rescuers pulled out an eight-year-old girl alive from the rubble on February 8, more than 60 hours after it was toppled. The rescue work lasted 180 hours until the last missing resident of the building was found.
North Korea’s state-run television KRT aired a video on February 11 of its leader Kim Jong Un watching a rocket launch which they claimed put a satellite into orbit on February 7.
The United States and its allies saw the launch as a cover for Pyongyang’s development of ballistic missile technology that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon across the Pacific Ocean.
February marked the start of the first major offensive north of Aleppo – a city split into areas held by the Syrian government and the opposition – since Russia began its air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad on September 30, 2015.
On February 6, the Syrian government army uploaded two video clips showing what they said was fighting in Ratyan, in Aleppo’s northern province. The videos show well-equipped soldiers fighting amid destroyed building and firing rockets.
Russia’s intervention tipped the balance of the war in favour of Assad, reversing gains the rebels made in 2015.
Advances by the Syrian army and allied militias, including Iranian fighters, threatened to cut off rebel-held zones of the city, at the time, home to around 350,000 people, while more than a million lived in government-controlled areas.
The air strikes prompted tens of thousands to flee towards Turkey near the Oncupinar border.
Close to 100,000 refugees fleeing escalating violence found themselves locked out of Turkey near the Oncupinar border crossing, relying on humanitarian aid from Turkish relief agencies provided inside Syria.
In Germany, eleven people died and around 80 were injured after two trains collided in the southern state of Bavaria on February 11.
The trains, carrying about 150 people in all, crashed at high speed near the Austrian border.
The prosecutor in charge of investigating Germany’s biggest train crash since 1998 concluded the collision was the result of an error by a signal controller.
Pope Francis met the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, on February 12, nearly 1,000 years after Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome, marking the first encounter in history between a Roman Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch.
Eastern Orthodoxy split with Rome in 1054, and today the Russian church counts some 165 million of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.
The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church said he was taking part in the meeting with the pontiff because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
In Syria’s northern Idlib province, a hospital supported by medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was hit by air strikes on February 15, killing 25 people and wounding 11.
MSF said the hospital was destroyed after being hit by four missiles following two attacks within a few minutes interval.
Amateur videos published online purport to show heavy smoke rising from the location. Another clip purports to show Syrian civil defense workers digging through the rubble of the destroyed hospital in search of survivors.
MSF did not identify the origin of the air strike, however a monitor group said it was thought to be carried out by the Russian airforce.
The hospital with 54 staff and 30 beds is financed by MSF.
In December 2015, MSF supported the reconstruction of the hospital after it had been forced to move from the previous location after being attacked three times.
In Turkey, there was another bomb blast, this time in Ankara. Thirty people were killed and dozens wounded in when a car laden with explosives detonated next to military buses near the armed forces’ headquarters, parliament and other government buildings on February 17.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed a Syrian Kurdish YPG militia fighter working with Kurdish militants inside Turkey for the attack, naming him as Salih Necar, born in 1992, and from the Hasakah region of northern Syria.
But the DNA report suggested the attack was carried out by Abdulbaki Somer, born in the eastern Turkish city of Van, said the security official and the state-run Anadolu news agency, which cited prosecution sources.
Somer matched the name given by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), a Kurdish militant group, when it claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on its website.
Fijians were left in desperate need of aid in remote islands and coastal villages devastated by a powerful cyclone which killed at least 43 people.
Aerial footage of outlying islands showed whole villages flattened and flooded after Cyclone Winston’s destructive winds, up to 325 kph (200 mph), tore through the archipelago of 300 islands.
Thousands of Fijians live in tin or wooden shacks in low-lying coastal areas.
Cyclone Winston, which was the worst storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, hit the South Pacific archipelago particularly hard, leaving tens of thousands homeless, their homes destroyed by winds or flooded.
A month later, more than 25,000 Fijians still remained in evacuation centres, according to a report from Fiji’s National Emergency Operation Centre.
In Greece, tensions ran high on February 27 among migrants who had been stranded for days in the Idomeni camp at the border with Macedonia.
In the morning, the line of people waiting for food stretched over 250 metres as scuffles broke out among people frustrated with exhaustion and fear that they will not be allowed to continue their journey toward Europe.
The migrants, mostly Syrian and Iraqi families with children, overcrowded the camp at Idomeni as Macedonia refused to admit anyone in more than 40 hours while a steady stream of people continued to arrive on foot or by taxi from the south.
Migrants could be heard shouting “open the door, help us pass” and showing crossed hands in the air as a symbol of arrest.
With tensions rising amidst more arrivals, Idomeni rapidly turned into one of the focal points in the largest migration crisis in Europe since World War Two.
It is where the migration surge broke, since countries along the Balkan route, including Serbia, started filtering out those not considered to be true refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq, including numerous Afghani migrants.
By February 29 Macedonian police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of migrants who stormed the border gate as frustrations over the closed border boiled over.
Several rounds of teargas were fired towards a crowd who tore down a metal demanding to cross into the country.
By then, close to 10,000 people were stranded in the small transit camp designed to hold 2,500.
Struggling with limited resources to house migrants itself, Macedonia had briefly closed its border, only to re-open it but with much stricter controls.
More than one million refugees and migrants passed through the camp in the previous 12 months, travelling from Turkey to Germany and other western European countries, where they hoped to secure asylum.