The tide of refugees fleeing the chaos in Albania washed insistently upon the Italian coast today, bringing to more than 6,600 the number braving choppy waters, creaky boats and the uncertainties of a life in another country to escape the violence at home.
A rusting Albanian navy vessel chugged into Brindisi tonight carrying 101 civilians. Italian naval authorities escorted the commandeered ship into the military section of the port, where the women and children were quartered for the night as the men were taken to the local police station.
Its arrival followed Sunday's harvest of 858 desperate passengers who arrived on an Albanian navy frigate that ran aground a mile offshore. Italian coast guard personnel tallied at 6,527 the number who have landed here on 130 assorted craft since the Albanian boat people began arriving five days ago. Among the ships were much of Albanian navy, including torpedo boats, minesweepers and patrol boats carrying deserting officers and crew.
The refugees are fleeing chaos and bloodshed that erupted 10 days ago and gradually spread throughout the impoverished Balkan country. The violence, which has claimed at least 100 lives and rendered the government of President Sali Berisha helpless, exploded in the wake of a pyramid-scheme scandal that has taken the savings of two-thirds of Albania's 3.4 million people.
As Italian authorities struggled to curtail the flow of ships and smaller craft ferrying terrified Albanians across the Adriatic Sea, the thousands who have managed to navigate the more than 40 miles to get here in the last five days have filled to overflowing the facilities used to house them: churches, gymnasiums, hospitals, low-rent hotels, parking structures, campgrounds and private homes.
The mayor of this coastal city, Lorenzo Maggi, said, "Brindisi is completely saturated," even as Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi evoked both his country's frustration and its obligation. "We can't throw them into the sea," Prodi said.
Italian authorities began today funneling the tide of fleeing Albanians, including families with young children, out of the suddenly overwhelmed Puglia region and northward to receiving centers in the Molise and Abruzzo regions. The prefect of Brindisi, Andrea Gentile, said "the problem is no longer just that of Puglia, but that of all Italy," according to one news report.
In Ostuni, 12 miles north of Brindisi, about 20 young Albanian men were chafing tonight after three days in a former town jail now serving as a crowded dormitory. "It was war. There were Kalashnikovs and guns -- children, men, everyone was shooting," recalled Altin Lika, 21, who arrived three days ago after making the crossing from the Albanian port of Durres.
He and the other young men were restless. "They promised us working papers, which would let us go to stay with our relatives in Italy," said Lika, who said his brother has lived in Italy for four years.
"But for three days we've been here and heard nothing. We don't know what is going to happen to us. . . . We get a cappuccino in the morning and then nothing but pasta to eat," he said.
Italy, along with France and Greece, failed Sunday to persuade the European Union to dispatch more than a token force of advisers to Albania to help quell the turmoil. Italy has borne the stress more than any other country; a much larger exodus of Albanians made for this rugged shore six years ago after the collapse of communist rule in Tirana. About 20,000 landed here and were given temporary working papers before the Italian navy began turning nearly as many Albanians back.
Prodi, speaking to reporters today, said: "We want to help those who need help, not those who have problems, or who make problems. . . . Italy is doing a lot for Albania." Prodi said Italy's position is firm -- "not to open the door indiscriminately."
The frenetic Albanians at the jail in Ostuni wondered if their plight, and their country's, was of any interest to Americans. "What do they think? Do they think badly of us?" asked one. News services reported from Tirana: Turmoil in Albania largely subsided, but gunmen ruled much of the south, demanding hefty fees from those wanting to flee the country and robbing a bank as police watched helplessly.
A team of European diplomats, led by Dutch roving envoy Jan de Marchant et d'Ansembourg, flew to Tirana and immediately began talks with Prime Minister Bashkim Fino aimed at helping Albania's government end the anarchy. CAPTION: Albanians aboard the Italian ship Teodoro Barretta, at left, wave on entering the Adriatic Sea port of Brindisi after their rescue from a foundering Albanian boat nearby. Above, a woman and child trying to board a vessel on a beach near Durres, Albania, are blocked by a gunman. Those controlling access to the boats reportedly were charging $250 per person for transport to Italy.