BRINDISI, ITALY, JULY 12 -- Ships from three nations sailed to a rendezvous off the Albanian coast today in a planned sealift of more than 4,500 Albanians seeking to escape Europe's last hard-line Communist regime.
France, Italy and West Germany chartered five ships to ferry the refugees 85 miles across the Adriatic from Durres, Albania, to the south Italian port of Brindisi, a voyage of five to seven hours. Brindisi is situated at the heel of Italy, about 330 miles southeast of Rome.
The exodus is expected to ease a two-week-old crisis sparked by the storming of foreign embassies in Tirana, the Albanian capital, by thousands of Albanians seeking asylum. Figures on the number of asylum-seekers have varied, with some accounts putting the total as high as 6,000/.
Fifty-one of the refugees were flown to Czechoslovakia Monday night in the first wave of the exodus.
Faced with the unprecedented turmoil, Albania's Communist authorities took a small step toward reform Wednesday by allowing privatization of sections of the service and handicraft industry. It was the latest liberalizing adjustment by the hard-line government. Foreign analysts and diplomats say Albanian President Ramiz Alia favors political and economic change but believes it should come gradually.
An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the ships would gather off Durres but that further details of the sealift would be withheld at the request of the Albanian government.
The Italian news agency ANSA, without citing sources, said the Albanian government does not want the ships to dock and that local boats will transfer the asylum-seekers from shore to the foreign vessels.
Two Greek-owned ferries, chartered by the West German government, arrived at Durres this 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 refugees are due here shortly after dawn. Most will be given coffee and rolls and then put on three trains to West Germany.