BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — It was all about the drone Wednesday — the one that took off from an Orthodox Church in Belgrade and flew over a soccer stadium with a nationalist Albanian banner. It ignited more than a brawl between players and fans — it inflamed years of simmering tensions between Balkan rivals Serbia and Albania.
Serbian officials accused Albania of a deliberate political provocation and Serbian police announced an investigation into who remotely piloted the drone — a small four-rotor chopper — that flew for several minutes around the stadium Tuesday night.
The banner — which carried a map of Albania enlarged to include chunks of several neighbors — danced above the field as it fluttered behind the drone. A Serbian player grabbed it, Albanian players tried to protect it, and as they clashed, Serbian fans rushed onto the field to brawl with the Albanians.
The referee halted and then abandoned the scoreless European Championship qualifying match in the 41st minute.
Albania’s team returned home to a hero’s welcome Wednesday for defending their nation’s honor, while UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, said it has opened disciplinary cases against both Serbia and Albania for the violence at the stadium.
The Serbian hosts have been charged over “insufficient organization,” fireworks being set off, missiles being launched, a crowd disturbance, a field invasion by supporters and the use of a laser pointer, UEFA said.
The Football Association of Albania has been charged for “refusing to play” and over the display of “an illicit banner,” it said.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter tweeted: “Football should never be used for political messages. I strongly condemn what happened in Belgrade last night.”
The drone incident spiked political tensions between two Balkan states that have been at odds for decades, mainly over Kosovo, a former ethnic Albanian-dominated Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia — which considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and religion — has never accepted Kosovo’s independence.
Belgrade media and officials even accused the Albanian prime minister’s brother, Olsi Rama, of controlling the drone from a VIP box at the stadium — something he vehemently denied in an interview with The Associated Press.
Albanian fans had been warned by their own soccer federation not to attend Tuesday’s game in Belgrade due to the political tensions. The Albanian anthem was loudly jeered by Serbian fans before the game and derogatory chants were heard throughout it. Serbian supporters also threw flares at the field.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said the drone incident aimed to destabilize the Balkans and “humiliate” Serbs, who are working toward trying to join the 28-nation European Union.
“Had someone from Serbia flown a ‘Greater Serbia’ flag in Tirana or Pristina, it would become an issue for the U.N. Security Council,” Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said, referring to the capitals of Albania and Kosovo.
The Serbian foreign ministry summoned the Albanian ambassador to Belgrade and demanded a “clear condemnation” of “the carefully planned incident.”
Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, meanwhile, strongly denounced the derogatory anti-Albanian slogans chanted by the Serbian fans and the violence before, during and after the match.
“We regret that high Serbian authorities have not had the courage to distance themselves from the acts of violence and hatred expressed openly toward our national symbols,” he said.
Bushati tweeted that “Football should not be highjacked by extremism” and “Proud of our #Albania team: showed courage and maturity.”
The dispute 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. EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic urged the meeting to still go ahead.
“Politics should not be driven by stadium provocations,” she said.
The Albanian prime minister’s brother told the AP in Tirana that reports he remotely piloted the drone were “absurd.”
“They want to justify the situation, which went beyond their control,” Olsi Rama said. “They seemed totally unprepared for an abnormal situation.”
He denied Belgrade media reports that he was detained by Serbian police but said his American passport was checked twice at the stadium during the game.
Serbian police said the light-weight drone, usually used to take aerial videos or photos with a small remote camera, took off from the roof of a Orthodox Church next to Partizan Stadium. It hovered for a while over the northern section of the stands, making made several turns before coming down near the center of the field.
One fan was seen grabbing the drone on the field and fleeing back into the stands. It was not clear if he had handed the drone over to the police. Serbian police said the banner was taken by an Albanian player and handed to the UEFA match delegate.
Serbian fans have a history of violence at soccer stadiums. In 2010, the Italy-Serbia European Championship qualifier was disrupted in Genoa by violent Serbian fans. UEFA eventually awarded Italy a 3-0 win. A massive brawl between Croatian and Serbian fans in 1990 in Zagreb, Croatia, heralded the start of the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, a dispute that turned into years of war in the 1990s.
It will be up to UEFA to decide how to go ahead with the match. UEFA could force the two qualifying matches between the teams to be played in empty stadiums or even send the teams to a neutral venue. The case will be dealt with by UEFA’s control, ethics and disciplinary Body on Oct. 23.
Calling the drone incident “a well-planned political diversion” by the Albanians, the Serbian Football Association suggested that Serbia should be awarded a 3-0 win.
Outside the airport in Tirana, the Albanian capital, up to 3,000 flag-waving supporters cheered as the team returned home early Wednesday. Rama, the prime minister, praised players on his Twitter page for “the pride and joy they gave us.”
“I’m still perplexed over what happened last night,” Albania coach Gianni De Biasi, an Italian, told Italy’s LaPresse news agency. “For a few hours I thought I was living through a nightmare.”
Albanian team captain Lorik Cana, who was born in Kosovo, said the team unanimously decided not to continue with the game and felt threatened by the inadequate security in Belgrade.
Albanian players “showed our neighbors we know how to respect them and also walk … with our heads high,” Cana said.
Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.
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