BELGRADE/TIRANA (Reuters) - The brother of Albania’s prime minister denied on Wednesday involvement in an incendiary flag-flying stunt at a soccer match in Serbia that triggered a brawl on the pitch and accusations of a political conspiracy to harm Balkan relations.
Tuesday’s Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier - at which Albanian fans were barred due to tensions between the two countries - was called off when a remote-conrolled plane flew a the flag of “Greater Albania” above the field, sparking a brawl that forced the Albanian players to flee.
Serbia’s foreign minister blamed the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, with some media reporting that Olsi Rama had been arrested in the VIP stands of the Belgrade stadium with the remote control in his hands.
Olsi denied that and, on Wednesday, a group of Albanian soccer fans claimed they were behind the stunt that has further soured relations between the countries that hit their lowest point in the 1990s war in the former Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are the majority.
Serbian media said 45-year-old Olsi had managed to get around the ban on Albanian fans thanks to the help of some European diplomats, an accusation that the European Union’s envoy to Belgrade denied in a Twitter post.
Olsi, who also has U.S. nationality, returned to Albania on the team’s plane and told Reuters he had been “taken aside” by Serbian police during the melee but not arrested.
“I’ve never used a drone in my life, only bought my son a toy helicopter,” he said.
A photograph posted on the Facebook page of an Albanian soccer fan group showed men posing with what appeared to be an identical drone, a “quadcopter”.
Under the caption “Deeds, not just words,” one of the men, identified as Agron Sadiku, wrote: “This was not my idea, but that of my uncle’s son, Egzon Feri. We never believed it would be done so successfully. I am very happy about it.”
It was unclear how credible the claim of responsibility was, but the diplomatic fallout threatens to overshadow - even derail - a historic visit by Prime Minister Rama to Belgrade on Oct. 22, the first by an Albanian leader since former Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha in 1946.
Rama’s visit has been seen as heralding a thaw between two countries united in a common goal to join the European Union.
During the war, NATO intervened with air strikes to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian fighters. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with the backing of the West and Albania, but not Serbia.
Sensitive to the risk of punishment by soccer body UEFA for the chaos at the match, Serbia said it bore no responsibility for the violence that followed the appearance of the drone trailing the flag of Greater Albania – an area covering Albania, Kosovo and parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece that are claimed by Albanian nationalists.
A Serbian player plucked the flag from the air, and several Albanian players reacted angrily, sparking a pitch invasion by several dozen Serbian fans. Fans threw flares and seats as the Albanian players raced from the pitch to the tunnel. The match was abandoned at 0-0.
There were celebrations on the streets of Albanian-populated towns across the Balkans. UEFA president Michel Platini said what had happened in Belgrade, a city that is no stranger to soccer violence, was “inexcusable”.
Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, in comments to the Serbian daily Blic, said of Olsi Rama: “He was supposed to be here as a guest. That gives the event a political dimension; this was a political provocation.”
But Albania’s prime minister, who was in the United States, tweeted: “Proud of the black and red team who, while soccer was being played, won the game with their play and chances. Regret for our neighbours who presented themselves badly with their ugly show.”
Additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy