PRAGUE, JULY 10 -- Italian officials announced tonight that all 3,000 political refugees overflowing foreign embassies in Albania's capital will soon be evacuated to Italy by sea, while the first refugees flown here from Albania early this morning expressed giddy delight at having escaped the last hard-line Communist state in Eastern Europe.
A spokesman for the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome told reporters that his government had negotiated safe passage for all refugees now in the West German, French, Italian and other embassies in Tirana, the Albanian capital, and that details were being worked out with Albanian officials and United Nations mediators.
He said the seaborne evacuation could begin within two or three days and would entail ferrying the refugees on commercial vessels from Albania's Adriatic port of Durres across the Strait of Otranto to the coast of southern Italy, 85 miles away.
The sealift would be the final chapter in a confused and desperate drama that began 12 days ago when hundreds of young Albanians, foiled in their efforts to acquire passports legally, scaled security fences and rammed through gates at nearly a dozen foreign embassies in Tirana, hoping to win political asylum and passage out of the country. Since then, Albanian President Ramiz Alia has pushed through a series of remedial political reforms and fired several hard-line government officials in a bid to head off full-scale public disorder.
The Italian government, which is leading the negotiations with Albanian authorities because it currently holds the presidency of the European Community, also said tonight that an earlier estimate of up to 6,000 refugees jamming the Tirana embassies was far too high and that the actual number is about half that.
Here in Prague, meanwhile, 51 exhausted Albanians flown here after camping for days in the Czechoslovak Embassy seemed beside themselves with joy. The refugees -- most of them men in their twenties and thirties -- were brought here in an aircraft normally reserved for use by President Vaclav Havel, and as they stepped off the plane this morning some were chanting "Havel! Havel!"
"It's unbelievable; it's like heaven," one refugee was quoted as saying. "We thank Havel for our freedom," said another. The refugees carried few possessions; one held a picture of Havel he had found on the plane.
"This is a wonderful feeling to be free, to walk around and breathe the air without anybody watching over you all the time," a 31-year-old plumber from Tirana, told Reuter. "But now we don't know where we shall be able to go. We must find a country to live, find work in places we know nothing about," he said in English, which he said he had taught himself.
The refugees were taken to an undisclosed location in the Czechoslovak capital while passage to their final destinations was being worked out. Only two are known to have expressed a desire to stay in Czechoslovakia, and Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier said most of the rest want to go to the United States.
On Monday, a U.S. State Department spokesman offered no comment on what U.S. policy would be on immigration of the Albanians, but there were indications that the request for refugee status would be handled through normal bureaucratic channels. This means that applications would have to be processed through an embassy designated for that function, the nearest being the embassy in Vienna.
The refugee crisis began June 28 when hordes of Albanians stormed the embassies at the conclusion of a mass street demonstration protesting the government's failure to make good on promised reforms, including a pledge to grant passports to all citizens. The demonstrators also expressed deep disenchantment over endemic economic hardship, widespread unemployment and the the quality of life in the tiny, drab Balkan nation of 3 million.
The roundabout migration is similar to the one that brought down the Communist government in East Germany last year, when tens of thousands of East Germans won passage to West Germany via embassies in Czechoslovakia and Hungary after their government failed to grant them direct access to the West.
Alia, the successor to longtime dictator Enver Hoxha, began raising the possibility of reform soon after taking power in 1985 in hopes of ending Albania's long isolation and rebuilding its ailing economy. The reforms were speeded up last year in response to the anti-Communist uprisings sweeping Eastern Europe, but Alia has ruled out multi-party democracy and his minimal liberalizing effort may prove to be too little, too late.
In a separate development today, Albania was granted its long-sought observer status at the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, in exchange for which it has promised to improve its poor human-rights record. A West German Foreign Ministry spokesman said that a country that wanted observer status would be expected to observe human rights, but that "once the refugees leave the country, it remains to be seen what the progress of Albania is in humanitarian and other political reforms."
One refugee who made his way to Yugoslavia complained to the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug today that the Albanian government was still oppressive and that economic hardship remained the rule, despite reforms. Reuter reported that the refugee said police had been ordered to cease stopping people on the street without reason, but that many Albanians, especially the young, longed for more fundamental freedoms.
Western diplomats in Tirana have not ruled out the possibility that the evacuation of the current refugees will encourage a second wave, but apparently there is as yet no agreed-upon plan to deal with such an event. "We will cross that bridge if and when we come to it," one diplomat said.
But as one refugee crisis appeared to be winding down, Czechoslovak officials found themselves handling another, this one in Cuba, as at least five Cubans have taken refuge in the Czechoslovak Embassy in Havana.
Their plea for asylum follows a barbed correspondence earlier this year between Cuban President Fidel Castro and Havel, who demanded that Castro release five Cubans arrested because of their human-rights activities. In his reply, Castro denounced the political prisoners as hooligans in the employ of imperialists.
Special correspondent Jennifer Parmelee in Rome contributed to this report.