Highlights of the main World news events for March and April 2016.
IDOMENI, GREECE ( (REUTERS) – Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants were stuck in camps and ports across Greece in March as authorities struggled to convince them that the main passage to reach wealthy northern Europe has shut.
By March 11 hundreds more people, many from the Middle East and Africa, had reached the Greek islands, days after the shutdowns along the “Balkan route” were imposed.
Their arrival helped swell the number of those stuck across the country to over 42,000. At a sprawling, muddy tent city near the northern border town of Idomeni, 12,000 people, among them thousands of children and babies, waited to cross to Macedonia.
Further south, more than 3,500 people waited at the main port of Piraeus near Athens after having arrived on ships from the eastern Aegean islands.
Sporadic scuffles broke out at Idomeni camp in Greece on the border with Macedonia as destitute migrants and refugees scrambled for food and firewood. Many have slept in the open, often in the rain and low temperatures.
Greece has been the main entry point into Europe for more than a million refugees and migrants since last year. More than 130,000 people had arrived by March 2016, stretching the country’s limited resources.
A suicide car bomb tore through a transport hub in the Turkish capital of Ankara on March 13, killing 37 people and wounding at least 125 more. It was the second such attack in the administrative heart of the city in less than a month.
The blast, which could be heard several kilometres away, sent burning debris showering down over an area a few hundred metres from the Justice and Interior Ministries, a top courthouse, and the former office of the prime minister.
There have been several security scares in Ankara and Istanbul amid fears of repeat bombings.
The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), linked to PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency against Turkey, said they carried out the bombing and vowed further strikes to avenge military operations in the largely Kurdish southeast.
On March 13, gunmen from al Qaeda’s North African branch drank beer at a beachside bar before launching a shooting rampage at an Ivory Coast resort town that left at least 18 people dead, the group’s third major attack in West Africa in four months. The March raid was the furthest yet from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) traditional desert base, a worrying indication of the militants’ growing reach. Fifteen civilians and three members of the Special Forces were killed and 33 people were wounded in the attack in Grand Bassam, a weekend retreat popular with Ivorians and westerners about 40 km (25 miles) east of the commercial capital Abidjan. Three militants also died in the attack on the resort town, a UNESCO heritage site of crumbling colonial-era buildings. The first victim was a boy who was made to kneel before he was shot. The gunmen then moved up the beach, continuing their killing spree and entering several seaside hotels.
More than 1,000 desperate migrants streamed out of a camp near the northern Greek border on March 14 to try to find a way around a border fence blocking their way into Macedonia.
A large group of migrants marched away from the sprawling tent city near Idomeni, where at least 12,000 people have been stranded in filthy conditions since Macedonia and other nations blocked their route north along the so-called Western Balkan route.
Heading west from the camp in a long snaking cavalcade along muddy paths, the migrants, wrapped up in coats and hats, carried their belongings in rucksacks and bags. The group included many children, some walking, others pushed in strollers.
After crossing the river, the migrants reached the border fence and walked along it trying to find a way through into Macedonia. Three migrants – two men and a woman – drowned while trying to cross a river close to the Greek border that had been swollen by heavy rain.
Greece stepped up efforts to move thousands of migrants near the Macedonian border to sheltered camps amid fears about the spread of infectious diseases.
On the 18th of March the European Union sealed a controversial deal with Turkey intended to halt illegal migration flows to Europe in return for financial and political rewards for Ankara.
The accord aimed to close the main route by which a million migrants and refugees poured across the Aegean Sea to Greece in the last year before marching north to Germany and Sweden.
Under the pact, Ankara said it would take back all migrants and refugees, including Syrians, who cross to Greece illegally across the sea. In return, the EU would take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with more money, early visa-free travel and faster progress in EU membership talks.
Migrants who arrived in Greece after March 20 were to be sent back once they have been registered and their individual asylum claim processed. The returns began on April 4.
While many in Brussels hailed the agreement as a game-changer, Amnesty International decried it as a “historic blow to human rights”, saying Europe was turning its back on refugees.
The number one fugitive from the November’s Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam was caught in a Brussels raid on March 18 and formally charged on March 19 along with a second man detained with him the previous day. The second man was identified as Monir Ahmed Alaaj alias Amine Choukri — both names that investigators have said appeared on fake documents. A third man detained in the same house, named as Abid A., was charged with being a member of a terrorist organisation and aiding and abetting criminals.
Ambulances rushed to a shopping and tourist district in central Istanbul on March 19 where four people were killed and at least 36 wounded following a suicide bombing. Police officers stood on guard in the popular district as streets remained cordoned off after the attack. Three Israeli citizens were among the victims killed, pushing the death toll from four separate suicide attacks in Turkey in 2016 to more than 80.
Sixty two people died when a passenger jet from Dubai crashed in southern Russia after its second attempt to land at Rostov-on-Don airport on March 19. The aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 operated by Dubai-based budget carrier Flydubai, crashed at 0340 (0040 GMT). Most of those on board were Russians. At the crash site, Russian workers finished their search of the snow-covered wreckage, having sifted more than 200 pieces of the victims’ bodies scattered across the airfield, Russian TV reported. Both of the plane’s flight recorders were recovered undamaged but an investigation has yet to determine the cause of the crash.
U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Cuba on March 20th, 15 months after he and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to end five decades of Cold War-era animosity that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution and work to normalize relations. On the first full day of his visit, he went to the heart of Cuba’s ideological system at the Palace of the Revolution, where Castro and his predecessor, elder brother Fidel Castro, have led Cuba’s resistance to U.S. pressure going back decades. Obama, who abandoned a long-time U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wanted to make his shift irreversible by the time he leaves office in January and secure it as a piece of his foreign policy legacy. But major obstacles remain to full normalisation of ties, including differences over human rights.
Suicide bombers struck Brussels Airport on March 22 in the first of two attacks that also hit the city’s metro, killing at least 35 and wounding over 300. The suicide bombers were named as Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui and the third man as Najim Laachraoui. The attacks took the form of explosions at Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital, triggering security alerts across western Europe and bringing some cross-border transport to a halt.
They were also strong reminder to Parisians of the Nov. 13 Islamist militant attacks in Paris where 130 people died, and came four days after the arrest in Brussels of a suspected participant in those assaults.
The attacks carried out on a city that is home to the European Union and NATO sent shockwaves across Europe and around the world, with authorities racing to review security at airports and on public transport.
It also rekindled debate about lagging European security cooperation and flaws in police surveillance.
Residents in the Belgian capital gathered at the city’s Place de la Bourse square on March 23 to lay flowers and light candles for the victims.
Among the chalk drawings and flowers, a poster read ‘Stop the massacres’, another ‘I am Brussels’ – a reference to the catch phrase ‘I am Charlie’ that became popular after the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
The Syrian-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for the attacks, warning of “black days” for those fighting it in Syria and Iraq.
Belgian warplanes have joined the coalition in the Middle East, but Brussels has long been a hub of Islamist militants who operated elsewhere.
Syrian government forces backed by heavy Russian air support drove Islamic State out of Palmyra on March 27, inflicting what the army called a “mortal blow” to militants who seized the city last year and dynamited its ancient temples.
The loss of Palmyra represents one of the biggest setbacks for the ultra-hardline Islamist group since it declared a caliphate in 2014 across large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The defeat comes three months after Islamic State fighters were driven out of the city of Ramadi in neighbouring Iraq, the first major victory for Iraq’s army since it collapsed in the face of an assault by the militants in June 2014.
Islamic State has lost ground elsewhere, including the Iraqi city of Tikrit and the Syrian town of al-Shadadi in February, as its enemies push it back and try to cut links between its two main power centres of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
The British-based monitor group said around 180 government soldiers and allied fighters have been killed in the campaign to retake Palmyra, which is home to some of the most extensive ruins of the Roman empire.
Islamic State militants dynamited several monuments last year.
A suicide bomber killed at least 65 people, mostly women and children, at a park in Lahore on March 27, in an attack claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction.
More than 300 other people were wounded in the attack, officials said. Police said most of the casualties were women and children.
The explosion occurred in the parking area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park close to children’s swings. The park is a popular site for members of Lahore’s Christian community, many of whom had gone there to celebrate the Easter weekend holiday.
The Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was targeting Christians.
Islamist militants in Pakistan have attacked Christians and other religious minorities often over the past decade. Many Pakistani Christians accuse the government of doing little to protect them, saying politicians are quick to offer condolences after an attack but slow to take any concrete steps to improve security.
An EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus on March 29 but the passengers and crew were freed unharmed. The hijacker surrendered to authorities.
Eighty-one people, including 21 foreigners and 15 crew, had been onboard the Airbus 320 flight when it took off, Egypt’s Civil Aviation Ministry said in a statement.
Cypriot and Egyptian authorities identified the suspect as Seif Eldin Mustafa, 59.
Mustafa took charge of the early morning flight by flashing what appeared to be a belt stuffed with plastic wires and a remote control, directing it to the holiday island where he asked for the release of female prisoners in Egypt, and to come in contact with his Cypriot ex-wife.
Dozens of people were killed at the beginning of April in four days of shelling and rocket strikes between Azerbaijan’s military and Armenian-backed separatists over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, prompting fears of an all-out war.
A ceasefire was agreed on April 4 at a behind-the-scenes meeting in Moscow between representatives of the warring sides.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous enclave within Azerbaijan’s borders, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians who reject Azerbaijan’s rule. With support from Armenia they fought a war in the early 1990s to establish de facto control over the territory.
The fighting during that week was the most intense since a 1994 ceasefire that stopped the conflict but did not resolve the underlying dispute.
Governments across the world began investigating possible financial wrongdoing by the rich and powerful on April 4 following a leak of documents from a Panamanian law firm which allegedly showed how clients avoided tax or laundered money.
The documents detailed schemes involving an array of figures from friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin to relatives of the prime ministers of Britain, Iceland and Pakistan and as well as the president of Ukraine, journalists who received them said.
While the “Panama Papers” detail complex financial arrangements benefitting the world’s elite, they do not necessarily mean the schemes were all illegal.
The Kremlin said the documents contained “nothing concrete and nothing new” while a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said his late father’s reported links to an offshore company were a “private matter”.
Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson wife was named in connection with a secretive company in an offshore haven which brought opposition calls for him to resign.
Pakistan denied any wrongdoing by the family of Prime Minister Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after his daughter and son have been linked to offshore companies.
Australia, Austria, Brazil, France and Sweden were among countries which said they had begun investigating the allegations. Banks as well as individual clients came under the spotlight.
The documents were leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 other news organisations.
The materials cover a period over almost 40 years, from 1977 until last December, and allegedly show that some companies domiciled in tax havens were being used for suspected money laundering, arms and drug deals, and tax evasion.
The head of Mossack Fonseca, Ramon Fonseca, has denied any wrongdoing but said his firm had suffered a successful but “limited” hack on its database. He described the hack and leak as “an international campaign against privacy”.
On April 22, Panamanian investigators raided a property used by Mossack Fonseca, removing bags full of shredded documents as evidence.
In a statement, Mossack Fonseca said it had digitized all its documents and that the shredded papers taken from its premises were bound for recycling. The law firm added that as a result of a previous search, prosecutors already had copies of all the documents they removed.
Migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos boarded small passenger boats early on April 4 to start their journey back to Turkey, part of the European Union deal aimed at stopping the influx of migrants and refugees into Europe. The first of two Turkish-flagged passenger boats carrying 131 migrants from Lesbos left for Dikili soon after dawn. The returnees were primarily from Pakistan and Bangladesh and they had not applied for asylum, said Frontex.
A small group of protesters outside the port chanted “Shame on you!” when the migrant boats set sail on the Aegean Sea. Volunteer rescuers aboard a nearby boat hoisted a banner that read: “Ferries for safe passage, not for deportation.”
Each migrant was accompanied by a plainclothes Frontex officer. They had been transported in a night-time operation from the island’s holding centre to the port. Greek riot police squads also boarded the boats.
In April, more than 3,300 migrants and refugees were on Lesbos. About 2,600 people were held at the Moria centre, a sprawling complex of prefabricated containers, 600 more than its stated capacity. Of those, 2,000 made asylum claims, UNHCR said.
Mohamed Abrini, wanted over attacks in Paris and Brussels was arrested in Brussels, on April 8. Abrini, a 31-year-old Belgian, was later identified as the “man in the hat” seen on security camera footage at Brussels airport on March 22 with two suicide bombers. A second suspect, believed to have been seen with a third suicide bomber on the metro, was also detained.
Abrini had been on Europe’s most wanted list since being identified on CCTV video in a car with Salah Abdeslam, the recently arrested prime surviving Paris suspect, two days before the Nov. 13 attacks in the French capital.
The “man in the hat” left the airport shortly after the twin suicide bombing and was tracked on CCTV for several miles into the city center.
Wearing glasses and a hat, he had been very difficult to identify from the footage showing him pushing a laden luggage trolley alongside the two men who would blow themselves up with similar explosive bags.
A third bomb was later found abandoned at the airport.
A fire swept through a temple in India’s southern Kerala state on April 10 killing more than 100 people and injuring more than 380 during a fireworks display to mark the start of the local Hindu new year.
The blaze started when a cracker fell onto a shed where the fireworks were stored, sparking powerful explosions that blew the roof of the administrative block of the Puttingal Devi temple, and caused another building to collapse.
Video shot by Renjith Easwar, one of the witnesses who was at the scene with his family and friends, shows a string of explosions rip through the temple complex at about 3:10 a.m. (2140 GMT April 9).
The Puttingal Devi temple is about 70 km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram in the coastal district of Kollam.
Kerala is studded with temples managed by rich and powerful trusts that often flout local regulations.
Each year temples hold fireworks displays, often competing to stage the most spectacular ones, with judges who decide the winners.
Macedonian police used tear gas to push back hundreds of migrants from the border fence on April 10.
Tear gas was fired on a crowd of more than 500 people who had gathered at the fence at the makeshift camp of Idomeni.
More than 10,000 migrants and refugees have been living at the sprawling tent camp in Greece since February, stranded there after a cascade of border shutdowns throughout the Balkans.
Migrants at Idomeni were demanding that the border with Macedonia be opened, but no migrants had been allowed through.
Greek authorities had been trying to convince the migrants in Idomeni to move to reception camps, with little success.
Evacuees in Japan who left their homes following a strong earthquake on April 14 were forced to leave shelters early on April 16 after an even bigger tremor hit the same area, killing at least 15 more people. The magnitude 7.3 earthquake injured hundreds and trapped many in collapsed buildings and came just over a day after a previous quake killed nine. Up to 40,000 people were evacuated in Kumamoto Prefecture since the first earthquake hit the region on April 14. Japanese authorities reported damage over a wide area, fires, power outages, collapsed bridges and gaping holes in the earth.
Migrants wept at Pope Francis’s feet, kissed his hand and begged for the pope’s help on April 16 at a Greek holding centre on the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis, which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past year. At a sprawling fenced complex on the Aegean island of Lesbos, adults and children broke down in tears, pleading for help after their onward journey to Europe was cut short by an EU decision to seal off a migrant route used by a million people fleeing conflict since early 2015. Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, shook hands with hundreds of people as hundreds more were penned behind metal barriers at the Moria camp, which holds some 3,000 people.
The pontiff toured the centre with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
On April 16, Pope Francis took three families of Syrian refugees back to Rome. All the members of the three families are Muslims. Their homes had been bombed, according to the Vatican.
Rescue workers dug for survivors on April 16 after an earthquake smashed the coastal region of Ecuador, killing at least 673 people, injuring tens of thousands and flattening resort towns.
The 7.8 magnitude quake ripped apart buildings and roads, knocked out power, and injured an estimated 27,000 people in the largely poor Andean country.
In the devastated beach town of Pedernales, rescue workers dug through rubble to search for survivors and provided first aid for victims, who were quickly transported to nearby hospitals.
By April 17, about 230 aftershocks have rattled survivors, who huddled in the streets, worried the flow of tremors could topple their already cracked homes.
The government described it as the worst quake in the country since 1979, when 600 people have been killed and 20,000 injured, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Prince, the innovative pop superstar whose song-writing and eccentric stage presence electrified fans around the world with hits including “Purple Rain” and “When Doves Cry,” died on April 21 in Minnesota. He was 57. His influential, genre-defying music blended jazz, funk, R&B, disco and rock, winning seven Grammy Awards and an Oscar.
Prince was found unresponsive in an elevator at his Paisley Park Studios compound, which included his home, in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen, according to the Carver County Sheriff’s Office. In a transcript of a 911 call made from the complex and released by the sheriff’s office, an unidentified male initially reported that someone was dead at the home, later identifying that victim as Prince.
Dedicated fans of Britain’s royal family were rewarded for lining the streets since dawn, by getting to meet Queen Elizabeth, who celebrated her 90th birthday by conducting a walkabout in Windsor on April 21. Many were dressed in red, white and blue, as children sang “Happy Birthday” to Britain’s longest-serving monarch, who smiled and appeared to enjoy the public occasion.
Born on April 21, 1926, Elizabeth shows no signs of retiring let alone abdicating. Close aides say Elizabeth, who has been on the throne for 64 years and is by far the oldest monarch in British history, was far more interested in events to mark her 90th birthday than she had been about overtaking her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria last September as Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign.