Thursday, February 22, 2007

Serbia faces Kosovo in historic handball game

Serbia faces Kosovo in historic handball game

By Zoran Milosavljevic

BELGRADE, Feb 22 (Reuters) - A women's handball game between a club from Serbia and ethnic Albanian rivals from the breakaway province of Kosovo could not have come at a more delicate time.

Serb and Kosovo Albanian political envoys are deadlocked in talks on Kosovo's future status in Vienna, and the handball fixture has been moved to a neutral venue in Hungary to reduce the chances of the high emotion boiling over.

It will be the first time teams from Serbia and Kosovo have faced off since the war of 1998-99, in which Serb troops were accused of killing 10,000 Kosovo Albanians and driving out almost 1 million in their bid to smother a guerrilla uprising.

Naisa from the Serbian city of Nis meets Vlaznimi Djakovica on Friday and Saturday. The winners over the two legs will advance to the last eight of the European Challenge Cup.

"The entire situation has stirred up a lot of tension and it has put a lot of pressure on the team," Naisa director Vesna Petrovic told the website of Belgrade's B92 television.

Kosovo has been under U.N. administration since NATO drove out the Serb forces in 1999. Leaders of Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority want independence while Serbia is prepared only to offer broad autonomy.

Vlaznimi coach Lulzim Nagafci left no room for doubt just how important the tie was for his Kosovan team.

"This is a big event for us because we are going there to represent the state of Kosovo. We believe we can achieve a good result," he told Thursday's issue of Pristina daily Express.

The paper said Kosovo's culture and sports minister Astrit Haracija as well as handball federation president Mexhit Devaja would attend the game, in Tatabanya in western Hungary.

"The encounter between the two teams will be more than just a game. It is the first time a team from Kosovo and a team from Serbia face each other in international competition," the Express said in its editorial column.

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