NEW: The brother of Albania's Prime Minister was arrested after the brawl, according to Serbian PM's office
Serbia's game against Albania in Belgrade was canceled after 41 minutes
A drone flew over the field carrying a "Greater Albania" flag, which a Serbian player grabbed
Both sets of players were involved in the brawl; European football organizers are investigating
A plot twist worthy of a thriller novel unfolded in the aftermath of the brawl at the Albania-Serbia soccer match Tuesday.
The “whodunnit” began when a mini-drone bearing a contentious flag flew low over the pitch during the European Championships qualifier, prompting a melee. It quickly reached a climax with conspiratorial charges flying between high officials of the two Balkan nations.
A Serbian government official accused the brother of Albania’s Prime Minister of remote-piloting the quadcopter from the stands. The accused man and the Prime Minister’s office vehemently denied it.
“I am very disgusted by the allegation of my having any involvement in the piloting of the drone,” Olsi Rama told CNN Wednesday.
The two versions of the story could hardly be more different.
A Serbian official, citing police, said Olsi Rama “was in possession of the navigator.”
The country’s football federation labeled the drone flight a “terrorist action planned in advance.”
The Serbian Prime Minister’s office said Rama was arrested and sent home to Albania.
Rama, whose brother is Prime Minister Edi Rama, denied he had any remote controller.
Olsi Rama said he had been taking pictures of the game from a VIP suite at the stadium. After the violence broke out, he said, police came to investigate.
“There were 50 or so Albanian guys who can say I didn’t have the controller – they searched everyone.”
Olsi Rama insisted the police’s actions were part of a Serbian “plot” that arose when they learned who he is.
As to Rama’s being arrested and sent packing? Not a word of it’s true, the Albanian Prime Minister’s communications director told CNN.
“There is no proof whatsoever and Olsi Rama was never arrested in Belgrade,” said Endri Fuga. “He has nothing to do with the drone.”
The match marked Albania’s first visit to Belgrade since 1967, and security was tight amid heightening tensions over Kosovo – a majority-Albanian former Serbian province, which declared independence in 2008.
Edi Rama, is scheduled to arrive in Belgrade in the next few days – the first such visit by an Albanian leader in 68 years.
In 1999, a 78-day air war was launched by NATO to stop the killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces.
Kosovo’s independence is recognized by many countries, but not by Serbia. Four of Albania’s starting lineup were born in Kosovo..
So when, 41 minutes into the goalless match, the drone with the “Greater Albania” flag descended near the field, conditions for mayhem were ripe.
The “Greater Albania” insignia, which was attached to the drone, refers to the idea of an extended area in which all ethnic Albanians reside – one which would include Kosovo. Along with portraits of revered Albanian nationlists Isa Boletini and Ismail Qemali, the flag bears the word “Autochthonous,” meaning an indigenous inhabitant of a place. It is considered an offense to Serbians.
Serbian player Stefan Mitrovic reached up and ripped the flag down, precipitating a brawl.
Match abandoned after drone invasion
Fans threw objects from the stand, including flares, and images from photo agencies showed civilians on the pitch. One of them was a shirtless man in a ski mask who had grabbed the tether connected to the downed drone, apparently trying to collect a prize.
Martin Atkinson, the English referee, took the players off the field. Police in riot gear took positions. The match was canceled.
The match “was abandoned and the circumstances will be reported to the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body,” European soccer’s governing body said in a statement on its website.
UEFA spokesperson Pedro Pinto told CNN an announcement on sanctions against both countries are expected to be made within a week.
Albanian spokesman calls for ‘fair investigation’
Serbia captain Branislav Ivanovic told reporters afterward, “What happened is something we can’t comprehend at the moment.”
“On behalf of my team, all I can say is that we wanted to carry on,” he said, adding that “we shielded the Albanian players every step of the way to the tunnel” after the riot broke out.
Fuga, the Albanian Prime Minister’s spokesman, called the incident “truly sad.”
“When you have 32,000 people shouting kill, kill, kill Albanians, it’s living in another dimension,” he told CNN.
He said his government “firmly condemns the despicable expressions of racism and violence” and hopes the UEFA, will conduct “a fair investigation which sheds light on the truth of all that happened in the Belgrade Stadium, from the start of our national anthem to the very last moment that our squad left the stadium.
“Football should never be mixed with politics and state politics cannot be driven by what happens in a football match,” Fuga said, adding that the Serbian accusation against the Prime Minister’s brother was “a testament to the presence of harmful elements that wish to keep this region mired in the past.”
Lorik Cana, one of the Kosovo natives on the Albanian team, told reporters that he and teammate Taulant Xhaka were injured after being “physically attacked by the Serbian supporters.”
“We just wanted to take the flag, and everything would be under control if the stadium security at the stadium had prevented the supporters from attacking our players,” he said.
CNN’s Alexander Hunter and Alba Prifti contributed to this report.