Italian Seaport Prepares for Arrival of Albanian Refugees
BRINDISI, Italy (AP) _ Ships from three nations sailed on Thursday to a rendezvous off Albania in a sea lift of more than 4,500 Albanians seeking to escape their homeland, Europe’s last haven for hard-line Communists.
Five ships were engaged by France, Italy and West Germany to ferry the refugees 85 miles across the Adriatic from Durres, Albania, to the southern Italian port of Brindisi, a voyage of five to seven hours.
The exodus was expected to ease a 2-week-old crisis created by Albanians storming foreign embassies in Tirana seeking asylum. Some braved police gunfire. Others crashed through embassy compound walls in trucks, or scrambled over walls.
The embassies have been struggling to feed and shelter the Albanians, many of them young people.
″They will all arrive tomorrow (Friday),″ said Franco LoParco, president of the Italian Red Cross in Brindisi.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the ships would meet up off Durres but further details would be withheld at the request of the Albanian government.
The Italian news agency ANSA, without citing its sources, said Albania doesn’t want the ships to dock and that the asylum-seekers will be transferred from shore to the foreign vessels by Albanian boats.
Two Greek-owned ferries, chartered by the West German government, arrived at Durres Thursday afternoon, a spokesman for the shipowner said. Together the two vessels can carry 1,900 passengers.
Two Italian ships were bound for Albania from Venice and Brindisi and a French-chartered ship set sail for Albania from Greece.
The first ship is due shortly after dawn. Most of the arrivals will be given coffee and croissants and then put on three trains headed for West Germany.
West German diplomats in Brindisi said 3,200 Albanians who took refuge in their embassy in Tirana, Albania’s capital, would make the sea crossing. Earlier, Italian officials put that figure at 2,200.
Figures on the total number of Albanian asylum-seekers also varied. An earlier version put it at more than 5,000.
Among those expected to arrive was a baby born Wednesday at the West German Embassy, diplomats in Tirana said.
The Germany-bound refugees will be given medical examinations and a chance to shower in Brindisi before boarding trains for a 30-hour journey.
Giuseppe Mazzitello, Brindisi’s administrative chief, said the port would be closed to tourist traffic Friday. Brindisi is in the heel of Italy, about 330 miles southeast of Rome.
Only 51 of the refugees had left Albania to now. The small group in the Czechoslovak Embassy was flown to Prague early Monday.
Albania agreed to let the refugees leave the embassy compounds after supplies of food and medicine ran low and hygienic conditions deteriorated.
The approximately 800 Albanians who took refuge in the Italian Embassy will be given temporary shelter in a military camp near Brindisi. About 540 from the French Embassy will continue to France by ship after stopping in Brindisi, authorities said.
A final destination will be determined in the refugees’ host country. Many say they hope to go to the United States.
Soldiers wearing yellow rubber gloves used wire-cutters to remove coils of barbed wire from concrete walls around the perimeter of the camp Thursday.
″We are taking down the barbed wire so it doesn’t seem like a concentration camp,″ said Lt. Col. Michele Dodde.
LoParco said the Red Cross expected to treat about a dozen wounded, including three or four people with fractures and several with kidney problems.
Hungary’s state news agency MTI said Hungary will fly the 40 Albanians in its embassy to Budapest Friday night.
The assault on the embassies presented the biggest challenge in decades to the Albanian government.
It was reminiscent of the rush on foreign embassies in East Germany last year that contributed to the collapse of the country’s Communist government.
Albanian leader Ramiz Alia introduced limited reforms this year, including some religious freedoms and travel abroad.
The crisis caused a shakeup in the leadership, but the government said it will maintain its hard line.
Some Albanians who arrived this week in Prague speculated that Communist rule in their country may last only a year or two more.
″I give Communism in my country one or two years,″ said Kola, 36-year-old Albanian construction worker. Kola, who gave only his first name, is housed with other refugees in a barracks outside Prague.
″It was intolerable. We all dreaded the isolation,″ he said.