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Serbia accuses Albania of provocation after brawl

Serbian officials accused Albania on Wednesday of a deliberate political provocation after a drone flew an Albanian nationalist banner over a stadium in Belgrade during a match between the two Balkan rivals

AP, Wednesday 15 Oct 2014
Serbian national team supporters clash with members of the riot police during the Euro 2016 Group I qualifying match between Serbia and Albania at the Partizan stadium in Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Serbian officials accused Albania on Wednesday of a deliberate political provocation after a drone flew an Albanian nationalist banner over a stadium in Belgrade during a match between the two Balkan rivals, sparking violence between players and fans.

The referee halted and then abandoned the scoreless European Championship qualifying match in the 41st minute Tuesday night when a Serbian player grabbed the banner - which carried a map of Albania enlarged to include chunks of its neighbors - and Albanian players tried to protect it. As the players clashed, Serbian fans then ran onto the field and clashed with Albanian players.




Serbian police announced an investigation Wednesday into who remotely piloted the drone that flew for several minutes over the stadium, while Albania's team returned home to a heroes' welcome for defending their nation's honor.

UEFA, the European soccer body, said it will open disciplinary cases against both Serbia and Albania over the violence at the stadium.

The incident spiked political tensions between two Balkan states that have been at odds for decades, mainly over the former ethnic Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Serbia - which considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and religion - has never accepted Kosovo's independence.

Albanian fans had been warned by their own soccer federation against attending Tuesday's game in Belgrade due to political tensions.

At the start of the match, the Albanian anthem was loudly jeered by Serbian fans and derogatory chants were heard throughout the first half. Serbian supporters also threw flares at the field.

Serbian minister Aleksandar Vulin said the drone incident was ''carefully staged,'' aiming to discredit Serbia and present the nation as a regional security risk.

''Had someone from Serbia flown a 'Greater Serbia' flag in Tirana or Pristina, it would become an issue for the U.N. Security Council meeting,'' said Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, referring to the Albanian and Kosovo capitals.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter tweeted: ''Football should never be used for political messages. I strongly condemn what happened in Belgrade last night.''

The stadium clashes brought into question next week's planned visit by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Belgrade, the first by an Albanian prime minister in 70 years.

Serbian fans have a long history of violence at soccer stadiums. In October 2010, the Italy-Serbia European Championship qualifier was disrupted in Genoa by violent Serbia fans. UEFA eventually awarded Italy a 3-0 win.

Outside the airport in Tirana, the Albanian capital, up to 3,000 flag-waving supporters gathered early Wednesday to cheer the team as it returned home. Rama, who was abroad, praised players on his Twitter page for ''the pride and joy they gave us,'' and said he was ''present in my heart'' at the airport reception.

Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati tweeted that ''Football should not be highjacked by extremism,'' adding ''Proud of our (hash)Albania team: showed courage and maturity.''

Albania goalkeeper Etrit Berisha thanked the fans for the welcome, writing on his Facebook page that ''defending our national symbols is a duty for us!''

Captain Lorik Cana said the team unanimously decided not to continue with the game.

''We considered our physical situation, with some injured players, which was not good,'' he said, adding that players also felt threatened. ''Our situation was clear, we could not continue the match. And the security situation was not adequate either.''

Cana, who was born in Kosovo, said Albanian players ''showed our neighbors we know how to respect them and also walk ... with our heads high.''

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