A Euro 2016 qualifying match between Serbia and Albania was abandoned after a drone carrying a pro-Albanian message was flown over the stadium late Tuesday, sparking violent scenes on and off the pitch.
The match between the Balkan rivals was scoreless when it was stopped in the 41st minute after the drone trailing a “Greater Albania” flag flew over the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade and was brought down by a Serbia player.
The incident triggered clashes between the two sets of players and a handful of the 20,000 Serbian spectators ran on to the pitch and tried to assault the Albanian team.
Albanian fans had been banned from attending the match.
Serbia’s interior ministry said the brother of Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama was arrested over the incident, accused of controlling the drone from his seat in the stadium’s executive box.
But the prime minister’s brother, Olsi Rama, who later returned to Tirana with the Albanian team to a hero’s welcome, said he had “nothing to do with the drone.”
Thousands of Albanian fans, as well as deputy prime minister Niko Peleshi and sports minister Lindita Nikolli, welcomed the squad home at Rinas airport.
The incident comes just days before Edi Rama is due to make the first visit by an Albanian premier to Serbia for 68 years.
Rama’s visit, set for next Wednesday, became possible after the normalisation of bilateral relations was sealed in an agreement brokered by the European Union in April 2013.
– ‘We wanted to continue’ –
Relations between Tirana and Belgrade have been strained over the issue of the mainly ethnic Albanian former Serbian province of Kosovo and the Albanian minority in southern Serbia, who frequently demand more autonomy.
In Belgrade, some see Tirana’s interest as part of a plan aimed at creating a “Greater Albania” that would unite Albanian communities in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and southern Serbia.
Kosovo’s independence, proclaimed in 2008, has been recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most EU states.
The premature end to Tuesday’s game was greeted with joy by nearly 5,000 Kosovar Albanians who gathered to watch on TV in the Kosovo capital Pristina, shouting “Greater Albania” and “victory”.
Serbia’s captain, Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic, said he was dismayed by the events.
European football’s governing body UEFA said the circumstances of the match would be reported to its Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body.
Kosovo’s formation was made possible by a bloody chain of events after the end of the Soviet era.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 created the conditions for the bloody wars that broke Yugoslavia apart into six multi-ethnic states, including Serbia.
NATO carried out a 78-day bombing campaign which led to Serb troops pulling out of Kosovo in 1999 and brought an end to the Serbian government’s repression of the ethnic Albanian population.
Serbia says the NATO airstrikes killed 2,500 civilians, including 89 children, a figure contested by NATO.