BRINDISI, ITALY, JULY 13 -- Her dress, mottled by dirt, fluttered around a bony frame. Her face showed her weariness, but when Mira Ligea patted her round stomach, she broke into a smile.

"It's our first baby," she said, gesturing to herself and her husband, Alessandro. "And it's going to be born in freedom."

Ligea, a 35-year-old seamstress, was one of the first of approximately 3,700 Albanians to arrive here today after storming European embassies in the Albanian capital, Tirana, to escape the economic and political repression of their nation's Stalinist regime, which has banned travel by most of its citizens for four decades.

Another 700 Albanians who sought refuge in the French Embassy were aboard a Maltese ship bound for France, according to Italian officials. Of those who arrived here, most were put on trains bound for Germany. About 800 were sent temporarily to a former military base outside this port, and 29 who had sought asylum in Tirana's Greek embassy were flown to Athens.

Among those who arrived here were writers and mechanics, farm workers and artists, even a professional puppeteer. Many cited economic hardships such as food shortages and low wages as reasons for leaving. But most said it was liberty that had lured them from their homes.

"We had no freedom of words. . . . We couldn't say anything bad about our government, even when we really felt strong about it," said Juna Tomori, 14, who accompanied her mother, a puppeteer.

An aspiring actress, with blond tresses swept up in a big blue bow, Juna said they left an uncle -- and the puppets -- behind. After she gets to Germany, where authorities have promised at least six months' hospitality, she hopes to go on to Ontario, where an aunt is waiting.

Hundreds of Albanian refugees chanting, "Ciao, Italia," lined the decks of the Espresso Grecia as it steamed into port this morning. Waiting Red Cross nurses waved back and blew kisses.

More than 90 percent of the estimated 4,400 who left Albania today had crowded into the West German, French and Italian embassies, some since July 1. Despite government threats and police gunfire that refugees today said killed "dozens" of compatriots, they scaled walls and crashed cars through embassy gates in search of asylum and a chance to leave their country.

After a two-week wait complicated by food and water shortages caused by overcrowding and Albanian authorities' periodic blockades of relief supplies, and many rounds of international negotiations, the coveted Albanian passports were issued Monday. A group of 51 Albanians were flown to freedom in Prague on Tuesday, but thousands more waited three days for the boats. They were taken today by bus under heavy Albanian military escort to the port of Durres, where five ships waited a mile offshore to carry them to Italy and France.

{Although the boats left under cover of pre-dawn darkness to keep other Albanians from trying to leave, Italian officials quoted by Reuter said there was confusion and dockside scuffles as the refugees rushed onto the ships and other people tried to join the exodus.

{Later today, about 100,000 Albanians rallied in Tirana in support of their Communist leaders, according to Albania's state news agency, ATA, monitored in Vienna by the Associated Press. Officials were reported to have condemned those fleeing abroad.}

Many among the first load of 970 refugees to arrive here looked dazed, dirty and frail, gratefully clutching at cups of milk and plastic-wrapped pastries.

One young man, Eduoard Shohu, showed a string of welts along his back and left side where he said prison guards had beaten him after he participated in a protest July 2 in Tirana. Paride Dirane, 65, talked of 26 years as a political prisoner and of his wish to meet with Pope John Paul II. "I have a message for him from a priest who was killed" by police, he said.

Although most of the refugees looked ragged, a few women had managed to put on fresh makeup and cocktail dresses. Several men sadly showed photographs of the children they had left behind. Four women were taken to a Brindisi hospital to give birth, and another delivered a baby boy in an ambulance shortly after arriving, according to Italian officials.

"We will start a new life, hopefully in America," said Ligea, the pregnant seamstress, noting she had relatives in Milwaukee. "In Albania, we worked so hard and were paid so little. . . . It will be better in your country."

{French, Italian and West German officials said they were temporarily closing their missions in Tirana for cleaning, Reuter reported. An Italian official said Thursday the objective of the closure would be to prevent another influx of dissidents.}