By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Preparations for a historic handball match between political adversaries Serbia and Kosovo ended in chaos on Friday with the expulsion of the host nation after it canceled the fixture over security concerns.
The women’s Under-20 World Championship qualifier would have been the first documented sporting encounter between Serbia and its former province, which declared independence in 2008 and which Belgrade does not recognize as a nation state.
But Serbia's Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic ordered the match to be scrapped over security concerns, a day after dozens of chanting youths carrying flares and national flags gathered outside the match venue.
The European Handball Federation (EHF) had arranged the game, part of a four-team event, in consultation with Serbian authorities.
In light of Friday's cancellation - which Kosovo's Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj called "unthinkable" - it was expelling the Serbian team from the tournament, the EHF said in a statement.
It said it expected the other matches to go ahead as scheduled.
But late on Friday the interior ministry said it had also canceled matches between Kosovo and Norway and Kosovo and Slovakia.
Stefanovic earlier suggested, in comments to news web site B92, that the government had been an unwilling participant.
Could we have organized 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."
He later told Belgrade Pink TV: "Kosovo is an integral part of our country. It would have been impossible to let this fixture go ahead without clashes and chaos."
The European Union has made Serbia committing to stable relations with Kosovo a prerequisite for membership of the bloc, and the country's presidents, Aleksandar Vucic and Hashim Thaci, met in Brussels on Thursday for a fresh round of EU-sponsored talks.
But Belgrade continues to refuse to recognize Pristina institutions and has attempted to prevent Kosovo from joining international organizations, including sports associations.
Kosovo declared independence almost a decade after a NATO bombing campaign ended a crackdown by Serbian authorities against secessionists among its majority ethic Albanian population.
The handball match was scheduled for 1500 GMT at Kovilovo, an isolated sports complex on the outskirts of the capital where it had been moved from the central city of Kragujevac for safety reasons.
The Serbian Handball Federation (RSS) had ordered the whole tournament to be played behind closed doors, with no fans or media present, saying it acted in line with instructions from the EHF.
The winner of the tournament - should it end up being played - will qualify for the July 1-15 World Championship in Hungary.
(Reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic; Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and John Stonestreet)