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Albania's PM 'disappointed' but undaunted by drone incident

CAMBRIDGE Mass. (Reuters) - Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said he was “disappointed” at Serbian officials’ comments following a drone stunt at a football match this week but vowed on Thursday to push ahead with plans to meet his counterpart in Belgrade next week.

Relations between the two countries have been tense since a Tuesday incident in which a drone bearing a flag representing “Greater Albania,” an area covering all parts of the Balkans where ethnic Albanians live, flew over a major football match between the Albanian and Serbian teams, prompting a brawl on the field and the cancellation of the game.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic earlier on Thursday claimed the incident showed that Albania was “not mature enough” to join the European community.

“We feel really sad and we feel really disappointed about what happened and about how Serbian authorities are reacting. It’s unbelievable,” Rama said in an interview with Reuters.

But he said he would not allow the remarks, or claims by Serbian officials that his brother had been responsible for the drone, to derail his plans to visit the Serbian capital on Oct. 22, in what would be the first visit to that city by an Albanian leader in almost 70 years.

“We should not be driven by this kind of politics of the past and hatred of the past. We should not be driven by what happened at a football game,” Rama said ahead of a speech at Harvard University, just outside Boston. “I am very determined to go ahead.”

The Albanian team fled the field at Tuesday’s match, held in the run-up to the Euro 2016 championships. Riot police were called in to disperse the crowd.

Rama noted that, in an effort to avoid any violent outbursts, Albania had sent no fans to the game other than a contingent of 45 dignitaries including his brother. The group was searched carefully by Serbian authorities, he added.

“I don’t see how someone could have brought in a drone or a flag when even scarves with Albanian symbols were not allowed to enter the stadium,” Rama said. “It’s clear that the flying object came from out of the stadium.”

He also asked why media accounts to the game played down the crowd shouting threats to kill Albanians, using an ethnic slur.

Both Serbia and Albania aim one day to join the European Union. Relations between the two have long been marked by tensions over Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, which has an ethnic-Albanian majority and declared independence in 2008.

“We are not going to respond in the same old way of a region that has suffered so much from this old way, from a region that has finally found peace,” Rama said. “We are in peace not because we became angels but because we are all convinced that Europe is our destination and we want to be part of the European family of nations as members of the European Union.”

Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Shumaker