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Global newsmakers of 2014: From Ebola to ISIS to missing Flight MH370

12/28/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/26/2015 05:59 EST
It was a grim year for international news: from the Ebola epidemic to the expanding ISIS threat to the tragic fates of two Malaysia Airlines passenger jets, 2014 took a toll in many corners of the world. Here's a look at some of the year's biggest newsmakers.

ISIS 

The Sunni militant group's influence grew in 2014. It expanded the territory under its control in Syria and Iraq, recruited more sympathizers to its cause and drew widespread condemnation — including from fellow Islamic extremists Al-Qaeda — for its video beheadings of captured hostages and enemy fighters. In September, after the beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the U.S. announced that a coalition of Western and Arab nations, including Canada, would launch a campaign of airstrikes against the group, also known as Islamic State or ISIL.

ISIS called for retaliation against members of the coalition, and there was some evidence that its message was resonating with sympathizers abroad, such as Martin Couture-Rouleau, a recent Muslim convert who ran down two Canadian soldiers in Quebec with his car in October, killing one of them, Patrice Vincent, and Man Haron Monis, a self-styled sheik who carried out a fatal hostage-taking at a café in Sydney, Australia.

Ebola

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa had claimed almost 7,000 lives as of mid-December and wreaked havoc on the health-care systems of the hardest-hit countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Many of the front-line health workers fighting the epidemic succumbed to the virus, including Sierra Leone's leading Ebola specialist, Dr. Sheikh Umar Khan.

In September, the virus made its way to the U.S., when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who likely contracted Ebola while helping an ill pregnant woman, travelled to Dallas to visit family, becoming the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola on American soil. Duncan died about 2½ weeks after arriving in the U.S., and his case prompted a re-examination of Ebola protocols after it emerged that the hospital where he initially went for treatment sent him home despite being told he had just come from West Africa.

Michael Brown 

The shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August set off several months of protests and debate about racism and police violence. Brown was walking in the middle of the street with a friend shortly after stealing cigarillos at a convenience store when he got in an altercation with the police officer who eventually shot and killed him.

​The decision not to indict the officer set off another wave of protests across the U.S. Two weeks after that decision, another white police officer was cleared in the death of Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island, N.Y., who died after being placed in a chokehold by the officer, inflaming tensions further and setting off more protests.

Vladimir Putin 

Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to let the escalating crisis in neighbouring Ukraine derail the $50-billion US spectacle that was the Sochi Olympics, the most expensive Games ever. Despite controversy ahead of the event over Russia's intervention in Ukraine and its anti-gay policies, the event went off largely without a hitch.

After it was over, Putin continued to defy the West's ultimatums to stay out of the conflict between nationalists and pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine, stepping up his support for rebel forces, brazenly annexing the Crimea region and helping the separatists consolidate their hold on the country's eastern region. His moves earned the condemnation of the international community, which imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russian banks, corporations and senior officials as well as on top Ukrainian officials and commanders behind the pro-Russia separatist revolt. Putin, however, has remained defiant, even as falling oil prices — and to some extent the impact of sanctions — brought down the ruble to almost half its value against the U.S. dollar. 

Malaysia Airlines 

The year 2014 was a true annus horribilis for the airline, which suffered two air disasters that claimed the lives of 537 people. In March, Flight MH370 diverted from its path while en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur and disappeared somewhere over the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. An international, multimillion-dollar search effort has so far failed to turn up the wreckage of the plane, and it's still not known why the passenger jet went off course.

 Less than six months later, another Malaysia Airlines plane, Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Russia-backed separatists are believed to have mistaken the airliner for a Ukrainian military aircraft. The incident exacerbated tensions over the Ukraine crisis, with the West blaming Russia for supplying the paramilitaries with weapons that enabled them to shoot down the plane.

Sewol ferry sinking 

South Korean ferry Capt. Lee Joon-seok, 13 members of the crew and the chief engineer were convicted of multiple charges and received sentences of five to 36 years for their roles in the sinking of the Sewol, which killed more than 300 people, most of them schoolchildren. The ferry capsized in the Maenggol Channel off the southern coast of South Korea while carrying a group of high school students on a class trip.

An investigation showed that the vessel took 2½​ hours to sink but that the captain and crew did not realize the seriousness of the situation and instructed passengers to stay inside their cabins and later abandoned them while they themselves were rescued. Investigators blamed the sinking on the inexperience of the crew and the fact that the ship was carrying almost twice as much cargo as it was allowed to, much of it not properly secured. The owner of the vessel disappeared soon after the disaster and was found dead in a field two months later.

Nigerian school girls 

The kidnapping of 276 girls and young women from a town in northeastern Nigeria by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attracted international attention, but despite a global campaign to "bring our girls home," about 200 of the girls still remained captive by the end of the year. The girls were taken from a school in the town of Chibok in April.

Dozens of them managed to escape, but the others were reportedly subjected to rapes and forced conversions to Islam and married off to Boko Haram militants. Abductions are one of the tactics employed by the Islamist extremists who have been waging an armed insurgency against Nigeria's secular government since 2009. 

Oscar Pistorius

The closely watched murder trial of the former Olympic sprinter accused of killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, came to an end in October, with the double-amputee sentenced to five years for manslaughter. The judge ruled that the South African athlete had behaved "negligently" when he shot several times through a bathroom door, killing Steenkamp, who was on the other side. But the judge rejected the charges of murder and premeditated murder. The light sentence prompted allegations that Pistorius benefited from "chequebook justice" on account of his celebrity and ability to pay for a high-powered legal team.

Umbrella movement

As students in Hong Kong braved heavy rains to stage large pro-democracy demonstrations in various parts of the city, umbrellas became the dominant symbol of the protest movement. Students began occupying parts of the city in September in an effort to pressure Beijing to allow open nominations for the position of chief executive of the territory in the 2017 elections —​ rather than favouring candidates approved by the central government. 

Thousands of students camped out in the central business district, setting up tents, art installations, study centres and occasionally clashing with police, but their numbers dwindled and the camp was dismantled by police after 10 weeks. Although they did not succeed in wrenching concessions from the government, many believe the protests energized the democracy movement and primed the political landscape for future change.

Murdered Mexican students

The endemic drug cartel violence and corruption that has plagued Mexico for years was brought into stark relief in 2014 with the disappearance of 43 student teachers in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The students had travelled from a rural teachers college to the city of Igualo to protest changes to teacher hiring practices and raise money for their college. They clashed with municipal police, who were reportedly ordered by the local mayor to prevent the protesters from disrupting an event at which the mayor's wife was speaking.

The police detained the students and eventually turned them over to the Guerreros Unidos cartel, whose members allegedly killed them, burned their bodies and dumped their remains in a river. The crime spurred outrage around the country and was seen as a potential turning point that could drive Mexico's government to finally tackle the problem of cartel violence and the links between organized crime, police and politicians.

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