- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - Serbia has banned a Kosovo team from taking part in a karate competition it is hosting, over a political dispute stemming from the former province’s declaration of independence.

The government’s office for Kosovo said Wednesday that the Kosovo delegation was stopped at the border because they carried state symbols that Belgrade does not recognize.

The statement said that Kosovo can take part at the European senior championships later this week in the northern city of Novi Sad only if they do not display state signs.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Kosovo staged a “political provocation” by sending its team to the border with state symbols.

The ban triggered an angry response from Kosovo.

Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj described it as an “unacceptable, unprecedented and terrible act … that does not contribute to the normalization of the relations between the two countries.”

Kosovo’s National Olympic Committee said it has informed relevant international bodies about the decision. “Our karate players were not going to Novi Sad as tourists, but were invited by the European Karate Federation,” it said.

The International Olympic Committee spoke out last week against governments which “clearly abuse sport for their political purposes.”

IOC President Thomas Bach cited a recent case of a Tunisian court blocking four Israelis from competing at the taekwondo junior world championships. The world Olympic body reacted by imposing an interim block on Tunisia’s interest to host the 2022 Youth Olympics.

The European Karate Federation said it is “making big efforts to guarantee the participation of all” athletes at the event it is organizing in Novi Sad.

Serbia and Kosovo have been told they must normalize relations in order to advance toward membership in the European Union, but tensions have persisted.

A handball tournament in Serbia was suspended in March after the hosts refused to play Kosovo and prevented it from playing any games.

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