October 17, 2014 / 2:34 PM / in 3 years

Serbian PM condemns attacks on Albanians in soccer row

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s prime minister on Friday condemned a spate of attacks on Albanian-owned businesses in the three days since a soccer match between the two countries descended into a brawl, but said he had not yet decided whether to let his Albanian counterpart go ahead with a visit to Belgrade next week.

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic gestures during an interview with Reuters in Belgrade July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic

A diplomatic row over Tuesday’s abandoned game is threatening to derail the trip by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, seen as a chance to reset ties after a long history of tensions between the Balkan countries.

Relations hit their lowest ebb in the late 1990s with the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in Serbia’s then southern province of Kosovo during a two-year counter-insurgency war. NATO intervened with 11 weeks of air strikes and Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

Rama said on Thursday that he was “very determined” to go ahead with the Oct. 22 visit, the first by an Albanian leader since Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1947.

But Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told Reuters on Friday that he would not decide until the weekend “whether or not they will be our guests.”

“We are not afraid of talks, but it seems to me that someone does not want to talk, but wants to threaten Serbia and to spark regional instability,” he said. “I can look him or anyone else in the eye.”

PITCH INVASION

Serbia and Albania have traded blame for the chaotic scenes that led to the abandonment of this week’s European Championship qualifying match shortly before half-time, when the score was 0-0.

A remote-controlled aircraft appeared over the pitch trailing a flag of “Greater Albania”, triggering a fight between the players and a pitch invasion by several dozen Serbian fans. The game had already been marred by the crowd shouting threats to kill Albanians, using an ethnic slur.

The two countries have exchanged accusations of ‘terrorism’ and ‘xenophobia’ and summoned each other’s ambassadors in Tirana and Belgrade.

Serbian police said they were investigating a number of incidents of arson and vandalism targeting businesses owned by ethnic Albanians, and had arrested one person. Serbian media reported a bakery had been torched and five other Albanian businesses in two Serbian towns had been vandalised.

Albania’s foreign ministry condemned the attacks as “an extension and expression of an intentional anti-Albanian campaign.” Vucic said those responsible would be punished “with maximum severity”.

“I am calling on Serbs ... not to act irresponsibly,” he said. “Our obligation is to demonstrate the difference between us and them, to show we are more serious, more responsible, that we respect the rights of national minorities and human rights of all in our country.”

Additional reporting by Benet Koleka in Tirana; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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