Albania fans arrested with weapons before Serbia match

TIRANA, Albania (AP) Police in Albania have arrested a man who claimed to have flown a drone carrying a nationalist banner over a stadium in Serbia last year during a European Championship qualifier, in an incident that prompted fan violence and a diplomatic spat between the two countries.

Authorities said 33-year-old Ismail Morinaj was arrested with three other men as part of a major security operation on the eve of the return match in Elbasan, Albania.

Morinaj, who is from the northeastern Kukes area but lives in Italy, is a regular at the Albanian national team’s away matches.

Two handguns, ammunition, and 36 match tickets were seized, police said. Morinaj was found with a Serbian-made Zastava pistol and a Chinese handgun.

Meanwhile, Serbian federation spokesman Aleksandar Boskovic told a news conference there had been a ”small incident, (at) midday, from the airport, when some stones were thrown against the bus, which was not damaged.” He added that Serbian officials had informed UEFA of the incident.

Tirana police said they noticed a mark on the bus after it arrived at the team hotel that was ”believed to have been caused from a stone thrown from a distance.”

Police said they were working to find those responsible.

Traffic in Tirana’s main boulevard, where the two hotels accommodating the Serbia team and the group of journalists accompanying them, was banned.

Police have taken tough security measures for Thursday’s game, deploying more than 2,000 officers, and enforcing road closures and a huge traffic cordon around the stadium. Fans will have to show identification and be searched before entering Elbasan Arena.

Albanian Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri said plain clothed officers would also be used. He said officials from an elite police unit had been assigned to protect members of the Serbian national team.

”This is an opportunity to show our values in supporting the national team and hosting the guest team,” he said.

Despite the draconian security, travel officials with the Serbian national team said no plans had been made for Serbian fans to travel to Albania.

A group of 70 Serbian students is being hosted by Albanian families. They are to meet with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama on Thursday.

Albania is currently third in Group I with 11 points from six matches. Portugal leads with 15 points, followed by Denmark with 12 but having played an additional game.

The top two and the best third-place finisher in the nine groups qualify automatically, with the other third-place teams entering a playoff.

Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece contributed