Dramatic and historic stories filled the news in 2004. The terrorist attacks in Madrid and Beslan, European Union expansion, the war in Iraq and the election fraud drama in Ukraine were just a few of the events that made headlines and caught listeners' ears.
Prague, 15 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The year began where it had left off in late 2003 -- with a massive earthquake in Iran that killed more than 25,000 people.
The quake struck the historic southeastern city of Bam on 26 December, but the search for victims and care for survivors went on through January.
An American doctor at a field hospital described the situation just after the New Year: "The majority of people I am seeing are coming in with stomach pain, headaches, their shoulders hurt; and then they cry and cry and cry and cry. They have such grieving that they don't eat, and because they don't eat, they're dehydrated, and because they are homeless and they are in tents and they are cold, they get pneumonia. It's all sort of related. It's very overwhelming."
Also in early January, a U.S. spacecraft successfully landed on Mars for the first time since 1997. NASA's Administrator Sean O'Keefe joined in the celebrations: "This is a big night for NASA. We are back. I am very, very proud of this team and we're on Mars. It is absolutely an incredible accomplishment."
In February, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski was killed in a plane crash. The government plane, carrying six other officials, went down in bad weather over Bosnia. A spokesman for the Bosnian Interior Ministry announced the news: "Unfortunately, we have to confirm the news that the airplane carrying the Macedonian delegation to the international conference in Bosnia, in Mostar, has crashed. The SFOR teams have found the wreckage of the airplane and confirm all on board were dead."
Madrid train bombings, 11 March
In Madrid on 11 March, simultaneous train bombings killed 200 people and injured some 2,000. Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar spoke shortly after the attack: "This is a mass assassination which, like any other terrorist attack, has no possible justification. But terrorism isn't blind. They have killed many people simply because they are Spanish."
Islamic militants with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda were later blamed for the attack.
However, authorities were accused of deception after they first pointed to a Basque separatist group. The following day, voters defeated the pro-Iraq-war government in national polls.
On 25 March, the U.S. commission investigating the 11 September 2001 attacks on America heard testimony from Richard Clarke, former senior adviser on antiterrorism for three presidents.
Sparking a storm of controversy, Clarke accused President George W. Bush of neglecting the issue of terrorism before "9/11." Moreover, Clarke said the Iraq war was a mistake: "The reason I am strident in criticism of the president of the United States is because by invading Iraq -- something I was not asked about by the commission, it's something I chose to write about a lot in [my] book -- by invading Iraq, the president of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism."
In late March, Uzbekistan was hit with a wave of bombings and shootings in Tashkent and Bukhara. At least 19 people were killed and many others wounded.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov blamed Hezb ut-Tahrir, a banned radical Islamic group: "If we look back at the events one by one and try to draw a lesson, I would say that all these attacks were very well planned in advance and the preparation, in all aspects, was from outside. The support came from extremist centers which have large funds and opportunities."
10 new members joined the EU on 1 May
May brought the enlargement of the European Union to 25 members: The EU welcomed Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern addressed the enlargement ceremony in Dublin: "Today is a day of welcome, the day when we welcome 10 new members into our European Union. We welcome them with pride. We welcome them with hope. And we invite all the people of Europe to celebrate with us."
Less than a week later, a tense political standoff ended in Georgia's autonomous republic of Adjara. Its leader, Aslan Abashidze, had long refused to submit to Tbilisi's authority. But his confrontation with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili failed to escalate into civil war, as many had feared.
Faced with a popular uprising, Abashidze fled into exile. Saakashvili announced the news on Georgian television: "Georgians: Aslan has fled! Adjara is free! I congratulate everyone on this victory. Georgia has to be united and rise up. Georgia will be united."
Kadyrov's funeral in May
On 9 May, Chechen separatists assassinated the Moscow-backed leader of Chechnya. Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was killed after a bomb exploded beneath the stands where he and others were watching a World War II memorial parade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed his death on Russian television: "Akhmed Kadyrov passed away on 9 May, on the day of our national holiday, the day of victory. And he left victorious as well."
In late June, the United States officially restored Iraq's sovereignty. The handover had been planned for 30 June. But in a surprise move amid security concerns, an interim Iraqi government took over on 28 June.
Paul Bremer, Iraq's former U.S. civil administrator, read a statement on Iraqi television: "You Iraqis must now take responsibility for your future of hope. You can create that future of hope by standing fast against those who kill your police and soldiers, who kill your women and children, who wreck Iraq's pipelines and power lines."
Near the end of July, the U.S. commission investigating the 9/11 attacks issued its final report. It said officials had had enough information to foil the plot but had failed to do so through poor bureaucratic coordination.
Former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean co-chaired the commission: "Our failures took place over many years and administrations. There is no single individual who is responsible for our failures, yet individuals and institutions cannot be absolved of responsibility. Any person in a senior position within our government during this time bears some element of responsibility for our government's actions."
In mid-August, more than 10,000 athletes from 202 countries gathered in Athens for the summer Olympics. Many had feared Greece's facilities would not be ready. But in the end, the games were considered a triumph of organization and style.
The horror of Beslan in September
On 1 September, Chechen-led militants descended on the southern Russian town of Beslan. On the first day of school, the militants took more than 1,000 children, parents, and teachers hostage.
After a three-day standoff, explosions were heard, and then intense gunfire broke out. An official count said more than 300 hostages, nearly half of them children, were killed. But some reports say the toll might have been much higher. A parliamentary commission is still investigating.
President Vladimir Putin addressed the country in a televised speech: "We, as I have said many times before, have been hit by many crises, uprisings and terrorist attacks. But what has happened now is inhumane and unprecedented cruelty by terrorists. This is not a challenge to the president, to parliament or to the government. It is a challenge to all of Russia. It is a challenge to all our people. It is an attack on our nation."
Also in September, a humanitarian disaster in Sudan's western Darfur region grabbed world attention. The UN said pro-government Arab militias killed an estimated 50,000 people, mostly black Africans. The militias, or janjawid, were also blamed for driving 1 million people from their homes.
Addressing a U.S. Senate committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell for the first time defined the killings as "genocide": "When we reviewed the evidence compiled by our team and then put it beside other information available to the State Department and widely known throughout the international community -- widely reported upon by the media and by others -- we concluded, I concluded, that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the janjawid bear responsibility and that genocide may still be occurring."
In October, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, announced the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo: "The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 to Wangari Maathai for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace."
Maathai is the first African woman to receive the honor. The 64-year-old biologist founded the Green Belt Movement, which has helped to plant more than 30 million trees across Africa. She is also praised for efforts to protect the rights of women and children.
Karzai (center) at his December inauguration
In Afghanistan, the country peacefully held its first-ever direct presidential elections on 9 October. Two days later, interim leader Hamid Karzai congratulated his people: "The Afghan people went and voted and by voting, they have shown the defeat of terrorism and all those who did not want peace in Afghanistan."
Karzai won, although not without controversy. Ink that was supposed to stay on voters' fingers to prevent multiple voting was found to wash off.
Still, observers concluded the elections were fair, and Karzai was inaugurated in early December.
On 17 October, Belarus held a referendum on changing the constitution to allow President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to run for a third five-year term.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher commented on the official results, according to which Belarusians overwhelmingly supported the measure: "We deeply regret that the Belarusian people were kept from freely and fairly expressing their will. International observers have noted a number of serious violations by the government in the campaign period, potentially biasing the election even before the votes were cast. Electoral misconduct continued throughout the voting and vote tabulation process. We're aware, for example, that exit poll results...present a far different picture of the voters preferences than the results that have been announced by the Belarus government."
Late in October, days before the U.S. presidential election, a videotape of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden appeared in circulation for the first time in some three years.
In the tape, bin Laden spoke directly to U.S. voters: "Your [U.S.] security is not in the hands of [Democratic challenger John] Kerry, or [U.S. President George W.] Bush or Al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Every state that does not interfere with our security automatically ensures its own security."
On 2 November, America voted. The results were close enough that they could not be confirmed until the next day. But in the end, President George W. Bush won reelection: "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one constitution, and one future that bind us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America."
About a week later, after an intense bombing campaign, 15,000 U.S. troops and Iraqi forces began a ground assault on the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah:
Al-Fallujah had been a safe haven for insurgents. House-to-house battles destroyed many of its buildings. The coalition took control in a little more than a week, but fighting flared in a number of other cities.
On 11 November, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died at the age of 75 after nearly two weeks in a hospital near Paris.
The hospital's chief doctor made the announcement: "Mr. Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, died at the Percy Military Training Hospital in Clamart on 11 November 2004 at 3.30 am."
Palestinian officials said doctors told them that Arafat's death was partly caused by poor dietary and living conditions. Arafat lived his last two years under virtual house arrest imposed by Israel.
At the end of November, Ukraine held the second round of its presidential election. Exit polls showed opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko with a big lead. But election officials declared Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the winner.
Hundreds of thousands of Yushchenko supporters flooded Kyiv and other cities to protest what international observers called massive electoral fraud.
Protesters stayed in Kyiv's Independence Square for weeks and blocked access to government buildings.
In early December, Ukraine's Supreme Court ruled that the election had, in fact, been manipulated. A repeat of the second round was ordered for 26 December.
Yushchenko addressed his supporters in Kyiv and declared victory: "Today, I want you to give special applause to the judges of the Supreme Court. They are true heroes today."
Less than two weeks later, Austrian doctors said they had determined that Yushchenko had almost certainly been intentionally poisoned with dioxin back in September.
The dramatic announcement seemed to finally explain the mystery illness behind Yushchenko's scarred face -- a face that, by the end of 2004, had become recognizable around the world.
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