Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has postponed a visit to Belgrade until later in November after a brawl at a football match between the two countries sparked a diplomatic row.
Rama’s visit to Belgrade, originally due to take place on October 22, will now be delayed until November 10 to allow tensions to calm. Both Rama and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic say they want the visit, designed to signal a turnaround in the two countries’ troubled relationship, to go ahead.
A qualifying match for the Euro 2016 football championships between the two countries held in Belgrade on October 14 was interrupted when a drone carrying an amended version of the Albanian flag was flown into the stadium. The flag showed a map of “Greater Albania”, drawn to include parts of Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. Fighting broke out on the pitch when Albanian players tried to defend the flag from their opponents, and the match was abandoned.
Rama’s brother, Olsi Rama, has been accused by Serbian officials of being responsible for sending the drone into the stadium, though he has denied the charge.
The incident came at a time when relations between Albania and Serbia were showing signs of improvement. Rama would have been the first Albanian leader in 68 years to visit Belgrade, signalling a warming in relations between the two countries after a lengthy history of conflict that intensified during the mainly ethnic Albanian Kosovo region’s war of separation from Serbia in the late 1990s.
Rama and Vucic discussed the issue on October 19, deciding to delay the meeting until tensions had eased, rather than cancelling. The two prime ministers said there were still “obvious disagreements” about how the incident occurred, adding however, that “they must not and will not miss the opportunity to meet and work on maintaining regional stability,” according to a statement on the Serbian government website.
“The two prime ministers concluded that it is time we turn a new page in the political and economic relations between Serbia and Albania,” the statement adds.
The violence on the pitch on October 14 was followed by a series of attacks on ethnic Albanian targets within Serbia in the following days.
After the match, several bakeries owned by ethnic Albanians were attacked in Serbia's northern Vojvodina region. A hand grenade was hurled into a bakery in Stara Pazova, and another Albanian-owned bakery in Sombor was set on fire, while three others in Vrsac were vandalised, Serbian broadcaster B92 reported. Also in Vojvodina, the door of the Muhajir Mosque in Subotica was set on fire early on October 19. In a further sign of anger over the incident in Serbia, Red Star Belgrade fans set an Albanian flag on fire during a match against Partizan Belgrade on October 18.
Serbian officials have condemned the violence, with Vucic saying in a statement that the government will guarantee the safety of the entire population. “[T]hese are criminal acts and the government will respond by protecting its citizens," Vucic told television channel RTS.
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