BELGRADE -- A Kosovar karate team has been barred from Serbia in a dispute over symbols of the independent former province, preventing the athletes from competing in a European Championship event this week.
In a move that drew an angry response from Pristina, the Serbian government's office for Kosovo said on May 9 that the Kosovar delegation was stopped at the border because members were carrying state symbols that are not recognized by Belgrade.
"Despite our will to be good hosts...athletes from Kosovo will not be part of the competition," the statement said. It said that "two groups of people who tried to enter Serbian territory were sent back," one late on May 8 and one early on May 9.
The statement also said that Kosovo can compete at the May 10-14 event in the northern city of Novi Sad only if it does not display state symbols.
Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj called Serbia's actions were "unacceptable, unprecedented, and terrible" and said the move "does not contribute to the normalization of the relations between the two countries."
Alvin Karaci, one of the athletes, expressed dismay in comments to RFE/RL.
"We were preparing for this championship and we were sure we would participate. We knew that we might have some misunderstandings with the Serbian side in Novi Sad. But, for special units to block the road at the border -- we did not expect that," he said.
"This display was not pleasant. We are athletes. We are neither politicians nor criminals to welcome us like that," Karaci said.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized by 116 countries, but Belgrade has refused to recognize Kosovo and still regards it as a Serbian province.
The countries are under pressure to improve their relations in order to advance their efforts to join the EU, but tensions remain high.
A handball match that would have set a precedent was canceled by host country Serbia in March, a day after dozens of chanting Serb youths carrying flares and national flags gathered outside the venue, and Serbia was disqualified.