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After football row, Serbia says Albania not mature enough for Europe

BELGRADE/TIRANA (Reuters) - Serbia said on Thursday Albania was “not mature enough” to join the European Union, escalating a war of words provoked by a drone stunt at a soccer match that stirred resentments just as the Balkan neighbours were seeking better relations.

Fans of Serbia react as a flag depicting so-called Greater Albania, an area covering all parts of the Balkans where ethnic Albanians live, is flown over the pitch during their Euro 2016 Group I qualifying soccer match against Albania at the FK Partizan stadium in Belgrade October 14, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The remarks, by Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, prompted Tirana to summon Belgrade’s envoy and cast further doubt on a visit by Albania’s premier to Belgrade on Oct. 22, the first of its kind in almost 70 years.

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit had been meant to reset relations, soured in particular over the question of Kosovo, Serbia’s former province which has an ethnic-Albanian majority and declared independence in 2008.

A remote-controlled plane trailing a flag of “Greater Albania” - which includes Kosovo and parts of Serbia and other Balkan states - over Belgrade’s soccer stadium provoked a brawl between players and a pitch invasion during the Euro 2016 qualifier on Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Albanian embassy in neighbouring Montenegro was pelted with stones, breaking windows, and in the Serbian towns of Sombor and Stara Pazova bakeries owned by Albanians were attacked with a hand grenade and petrol bomb.

Stefanovic said police were examining the drone to determine its producer and where it was purchased. Such planes, known as quadcopters, can be bought online for a few hundred euros.

A group of Albanian football fans claimed responsibility for the stunt, but that has not been verified, and Serbia says it suspects high-level collusion.

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“Statements by leaders of the Albanian government demonstrate that they knew such a provocation was being prepared,” Stefanovic said.

“If Albania believes that European values are the values of so-called ‘Greater Albania’, then the Serbian Republic cannot share them by any means, and hence we believe that they are not mature enough as a state to join the European family.”

Both Serbia and Albania aim to one day join the EU.

The Serbian Football Association called the drone stunt an act of terrorism. Albanian fans were banned from attending the game, though there were some in the VIP stand, including the brother of Prime Minister Edi Rama, whom Serbia’s foreign minister and media initially accused of operating the plane.

“The Serbian FA is appalled by the provocation and also fears that this was a pre-arranged scenario amounting to a terrorist act aimed primarily against our country, it said.

The match was abandoned at 0-0 in the 41st minute, with the two sides blaming each other. Serbia summoned the Albanian ambassador on Wednesday and issued a formal protest.

Albania reciprocated on Thursday and issued a statement accusing Belgrade of “political mudslinging.”

“We invite the senior leaders of Serbia to be clear-headed and demonstrate maturity by condemning the anti-Albanian acts before, during and after the Serbia vs Albania match,” it said.

European football’s governing body, UEFA, has opened disciplinary proceedings against the football associations of both countries.

Additonal reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade and Petar Komnenic in Podgorica; Editing by Robin Pomeroy