Drone stunt at Serbia-Albania soccer match causes diplomatic row

Wed Oct 15, 2014 12:57pm EDT
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By Matt Robinson and Benet Koleka

BELGRADE/TIRANA (Reuters) - Serbia summoned the Albanian ambasssador on Wednesday to protest at an incendiary flag-flying stunt at an international soccer match that caused a brawl on the pitch and set back hopes for detente between the Balkan neighbours.

Tuesday's Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier - at which Albanian fans were barred due to tensions between the two countries - was called off when a remote-controlled plane flew a the flag of "Greater Albania" above the field, sparking a brawl that forced the Albanian players to flee.

With the countries trading accusations of xenophobia and extremism, a visit by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Belgrade next week, that was meant to mark a new chapter in their troubled history, looked at risk of being cancelled.

Relations between Serbia and Albania have long been hostile and hit their lowest point during a war in the former Serbian province of Kosovo in the late 1990s when NATO, concerned about the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians, deployed airstrikes against Serbian forces.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Belgrade refuses to recognise it, saying the territory, which has a majority Albanian population, is a heartland of the Serbian nation.

Serbia's foreign minister blamed the Albanian prime minister's brother for the drone stunt, with some media reporting that Olsi Rama had been arrested in the VIP stands of the Belgrade stadium with the remote control in his hands.

Olsi denied that and, on Wednesday, a group of Albanian soccer fans said they were behind the incident. The Serbian government and media were livid.

"It was clear they came with the plain and obvious intention to provoke their hosts," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters. He told the Serbian daily Vecernje Novosti that "Albanian extremists" wanted to portray Serbia as intolerant.   Continued...

Stefan Mitrovic of Serbia grabs a flag depicting so-called Greater Albania, an area covering all parts of the Balkans where ethnic Albanians live, that was flown over the pitch during their Euro 2016 Group I qualifying soccer match against Albania at the FK Partizan stadium in Belgrade October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica