2021’s biggest world news stories, from Taliban takeover in Afghanistan to La Palma volcano eruption

From an opposition journalist forced off a plane to the disastrous Afghanistan pull-out, 2021 was a tumultuous year even as the world continued battling the pandemic.

There were glimmers of hope, as Olympic champion Simone Biles proved a role model for young people and a fan-led movement helped free pop star Britney Spears from a conservatorship.

However, 2021 also saw the world ablaze with devastating wildfires and heatwaves, crises at international borders, and conflict ravaging some nations.

Here are some of the biggest news stories of the year from around the world:

Plane forced down

Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich was detained after a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk on 23 May (Photo: Stringer/Anadolu via Getty)

Belarus hit international headlines after its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko forced down a Ryanair flight to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich.

Mr Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were taken off the flight, which was travelling from Greece to Lithuania, and detained. They were later moved to house arrest.

The May incident caused international outrage, with some EU leaders calling it a “hijacking” as the bloc moved to impose economic sanctions against Belarus.

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There were concerns Mr Protasevich was being tortured by Belarusian authorities after he appeared in a video following his arrest to say he was in good health and make an apparent confession to “plotting riots” in Minsk last year.

Mr Protasevich, who has made several appearances on Belarusian state television since his arrest, stands accused of organising riots and could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Earlier this month, Ms Sapega was charged by the Belarusian Investigative Committee with inciting social hatred, threatening police officers and flouting data privacy laws.

Belarus-Poland border crisis

A Kurdish family from Dohuk in Iraq are seen in a forest near the Polish-Belarus border on 9 November (Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty)

Mr Lukashenko again faced criticism over the migrant crisis at the Belarus-Poland border, where thousands of desperate people were stranded in forests at risk of freezing to death.

Families became separated and camped in squalid conditions after Belarusian authorities promised they would be able to cross the border to Poland, but Polish border forces blocked their entry.

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The crisis began after the EU tightened sanctions against Mr Lukashenko, in response to his regime’s brutal crackdown following a disputed election last year, which handed him a sixth term as president.

Planes carrying migrants from Iraq, Syria and other countries began arriving in Belarus, and headed for the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. EU nations accused Belarus of trying to direct migrants to cross the Polish border in revenge for the sanctions. Minsk denied the allegations.

La Palma volcano eruption

A house covered with ash following the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the Canary Island of La Palma (Photo: Jorge Guerrero/AFP via Getty )

The Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands erupted for the first time in 50 years in September, forcing thousands to abandon their homes and farms as they were engulfed by lava.

Residents of the Spanish island have suffered almost three months of daily eruptions, with earthquakes, rivers of molten rock and ash burying wide swathes of land.

The volcano appeared to fall silent in December, but scientists have not ruled out a resurgence. The lava has destroyed around 3,000 buildings and severely damaged a large section of La Palma’s south-western side.

Palestine-Israel conflict

Palestinian worshippers pray near the rubble of a destroyed mosque in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, on 27 May (Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

An 11-day conflict between Israel and Palestine that ended on 21 May left more than 200 dead, the vast majority Palestinians, and brought devastation to the impoverished Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

The worst fighting in years was sparked by clashes between Israeli police and worshippers at Jerusalem‘s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during Ramadan, and the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

Hamas launched long-range rockets toward Jerusalem on 10 May, to which the Israeli military responded with airstrikes.

At least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and 40 women, were killed, the United Nations reported. Twelve people, including two children, were killed in Israel. Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire following intense pressure from world leaders.

Evacuating Afghanistan

Afghan people climb on top of a plane as they wait at Kabul airport on 16 August to escape the country (Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty)

The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August after a swift takeover that took Western forces by surprise.

It followed the announcement that US and Nato troops would leave Afghanistan, marking the end of America’s 20-year war.

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During the chaotic evacuation effort, footage emerged of desperate Afghans clinging on to the side of a military aircraft and falling to their deaths at Kabul airport. The UK airlifted 15,000 people out of the country, but a Foreign Office whistleblower alleged that roughly 95 per cent of those eligible for rescue were turned away.

Uncertainty and fear now plague Afghanistan, where women have been stripped of their rights and some starving families are resorting to selling their children to buy food.

The world ablaze

An woman leaves her home in the village of Gouves, on the island of Evia, Greece, during a wildfire in August (Photo: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg via Getty)

Apocalyptic scenes gripped countries across the world during deadly wildfires and heatwaves.

A “heat dome” across North America’s Pacific North-West in June is believed to have killed hundreds. Canada’s blistering temperatures saw the village of Lytton in British Columbia almost completely destroyed by wildfires after temperatures reached a record high of 49.6C in June.

In September, wildfires in California torched around 3,000 ancient sequoias.

British firefighters were sent to help tackle huge wildfires across Greece in August, after the country saw temperatures of more than 40C for days in its worst heatwave in more than 30 years.

At least eight people died in Turkey’s worst fires in at least a decade, and hundreds in Italy were evacuated from homes and beach resorts.

The infernos brought to light the devastating impact of climate change, with experts warning that extreme weather events could become more frequent and intense.

A hero in flight

US gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the women’s team final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to prioritise her mental health (Photo: Mike Egerton/PA)

Fans were eager to see gymnastics superstar Simone Biles perform at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer, but the pressure of her sport and personal battles saw her struggle on the global stage.

In an uncharacteristically imperfect performance, a vault went awry and she lost her bearings in mid-air before stumbling out of her landing. She later said she was experiencing “twisties”, a mental block where gymnasts lose their ability to judge where they are in the air.

Biles spoke of feeling the “weight of the world” on her shoulders, and pulled out midway through the team final to take care of her mental health, gaining praise for her courage.

She returned to compete on the balance beam, winning a bronze for her seventh Olympics medal. The Team USA gymnast was named Athlete of the Year by Time.

Capitol riots

Police officers with guns drawn as rioters loyal to Donald Trump try to break into the House Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington on 6 January (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Supporters of Donald Trump stormed Washington’s Capitol Building on 6 January, triggering unprecedented chaos as they tried to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory following a rally by the former US president.

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Scores of police officers were beaten, five people died and the insurrection caused about $1.5m in damage.

More than 700 people were charged, including Robert Palmer, from Florida, who sprayed police officers with a fire extinguisher before throwing it at them. He was sentenced to five years in prison, the longest jail term handed to a Capitol rioter so far.

Mr Trump tried to downplay the riots as a protest while claiming, with no evidence, that the “real insurrection” took place on election day. He has tried to stonewall the committee investigating the riots with several of his allies refusing to comply.

Death on the road

22-year-old influencer Gabby Petito had been on a road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie when she disappeared (Photo: Thomas O’Neill/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The world was gripped by the disappearance of Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, 22, who went missing while travelling in a van around the American West with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, 23, and documenting it on YouTube.

Ms Petito’s family said they had not heard from her since late August and she was reported missing on 11 September, while Mr Laundrie returned home to North Port, Florida alone with the van.

After Ms Petito’s remains were discovered on 19 September at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, her death was ruled a murder. Police named Mr Laundrie a person of interest.

Mr Laundrie disappeared on 14 September and his body was discovered more than a month later at Carlton Reserve in Florida, with a post-mortem examination revealing he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

R Kelly on trial

Musician R Kelly was convicted over allegations that he abused young women and girls for decades (Photo: Amr Alfiky/AP)

Disgraced R&B singer R Kelly was convicted on charges of sex trafficking, after having faced decades of allegations of sexual misconduct.

His victims gave harrowing evidence of the abuse they endured during his five-week trial, which began on 18 August.

A New York court heard how the musician subjected his victims to his perverse and sadistic whims when they were underage, with one woman identified only as “Jane Doe” telling jurors she was forced to smear faeces on her face.

R Kelly has faced allegations of inappropriate relationships with underage girls for years, following his illegal marriage to the late R&B star Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 and he was 27. In September, he was found guilty of eight counts of sex trafficking and one of racketeering, and he faces decades behind bars when he is due to be sentenced in May 2022.

Astroworld tragedy

Travis Scott performs at the Astroworld music festival in Houston, Texas, where 10 people died (Photo: Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Ten people were killed and hundreds injured in a crush at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival in Houston, Texas in November. The American rapper said he was “devastated” following the tragedy when a large crowd of fans surged toward the stage during his performance.

Scott and the event organisers are the focus of a criminal investigation by Houston police. No one has been charged.

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The youngest victim was nine-year-old Ezra Bloun, while the others ranged in age from 14 to 27.

Medical officials in Houston announced earlier this month that the victims died from compression asphyxia, saying it was likely that the pressure from the crowd was so great that it squeezed the air from their lungs.

Miami building collapse

Search and rescue personnel work atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Florida (Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP)

A 12-storey building near Miami, Florida collapsed in June, triggering a massive search effort for survivors as families watched in hope.

Rescuers worked through a heatwave and rainstorms, with firefighters on 12-hour shifts camping at the site as they painstakingly removed layers of dangerous debris and pulled out dozens of bodies.

The remaining portions of the Champlain Towers South building were later imploded over safety fears.

The tragedy in the town of Surfside prompted an outpouring of grief, with locals donating their homes to victims and raising millions of dollars. The 98 people who died were remembered in a memorial service on 12 December off the South Florida coast, with a plaque installed at an underwater memorial site.

A trial is likely to take place in the summer of 2022, with lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages.

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