Sport the victim as politics claims historic Serbia, Kosovo handball match
BELGRADE, March 23 (Reuters) - Hopes that sport might foster relations between Serbia and Kosovo where politics has failed proved short-lived on Friday when the threat of violence drove Belgrade to cancel a historic handball match they had been due to contest.
The women’s Under-20 World Championship qualifier would have been the first documented sporting fixture between Serbia and its former province, which declared independence in 2008 and which Belgrade does not recognise as a nation state.
But Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic ordered the match to be scrapped over security concerns, he told the national Tanjug news agency.
On Thursday evening, dozens of youths carrying Serbian flags and flares gathered in front of the match venue, the Kovilovo stadium on the outskirts of the capital, prompting riot police to deploy troops there in large numbers on Friday.
Stefanovic suggested, in comments to news web site B92, that the government had been an unwilling participant in the event.
"Could we have organised for this match to go ahead? Certainly. But at what cost?," he was quoted as saying.
"We are not ready to have the police beat up people for the sake of a match which contradicts all our positions."
The European Union has made Serbia committing to stable relations with Kosovo a prerequisite for membership, but Belgrade continues to refuse to recognise Pristina institutions and has been obstructing Kosovo's attempts to gain membership of international organisations, including sports associations.
Kosovo declared independence almost a decade after a NATO bombing campaign ended a crackdown by Serbia against independence-seeking ethic Albanians.
The declaration sparked violent protests in Belgrade in which the United States embassy was set on fire.
The cancelled fixture is part of a four-team qualifying tournament also involving Norway and Slovakia.
It was scheduled for 1500 GMT at Kovilovo, having been moved to the isolated complex earlier this week from the central city of Kragujevac for safety reasons.
The Serbian Handball Federation (RSS) had also ordered the whole tournament to be held behind closed doors, with no fans or media present, saying it acted in line with instructions from the European Handball Federation (EHF).
An EHF spokesman said the body had acted in coordination with Serbian authorities.
"The EHF made the decision based on advice from Serbia’s authorities to ensure the safety of the players and everyone else taking part in the tournament,” he said.
The winner of the tournament will qualify for the July 1-15 World Championship in Hungary. (Reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and John Stonestreet)