Serbia-Montenegro relations strained by Serb priest ban

Belgrade, Serbia - Montenegro's decision to ban a Serbian priest from entering the country triggered a diplomatic dispute this week that has pushed relations between the former Balkan allies to their lowest point since the breakup of their joint state more than a year ago.

Bishop Filaret, a nationalist Serbian Orthodox Church priest once photographed holding a machine gun, has launched a hunger strike at a border crossing to protest last week's ban on his entry into Montenegro.

Tensions over the ban escalated with an adviser to the Serbian prime minister on Tuesday calling Montenegro a quasi-state, prompting Podgorica to seek an apology and lodge a formal protest with Serbia's government.

Another Serbian minister walked out from a meeting Wednesday with his Montenegrin counterparts to protest the entry ban on Bishop Filaret.

Serbia's foreign minister sought Thursday to ease the tensions, saying the protests by the two officials did not represent a formal stand by the Serbian government, which sought good relations with its neighbor.

Montenegro has said that the bishop — one of the key Serbian Orthodox Church dignitaries — was among dozens of people listed by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia as having helped fugitives sought by the Netherlands-based court.