Surprised Greek officials struggled to put up hundreds of newly arrived Albanian refugees in makeshift shelters Monday, and Albanian Jews were arriving in Israel under relaxed travel restrictions.
In the the largest one-day emigration from Albania since reforms began last summer, at least 500 Albanians - mostly ethnic Greeks - arrived in northern Greece on Sunday seeking political asylum. In addition, 37 Jews flew to Rome from the Albanian capital of Tirana en route to Israel.So far this month, more than 1,000 people from the tiny Balkan nation of 3.3 million have fled into Greece across the once tightly sealed 100-mile frontier. Border police said reports indicated about 3,000 more Albanians were expected to try to cross the border Monday.
Israeli media reported Monday that four Albanian Jewish families had arrived in Israel and dozens more were expected in coming weeks. Israel radio said the Albanian immigration was made possible by a recent agreement by Italy with Albania, the last of the hard-line communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
But Israeli government officials were tight-lipped about the immigration of Albanian Jews, apparently fearful of harming the effort.
"This is going to save Albanian Jews from total extinction. Had they remained there, they would have been wiped out in a generation," said Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a consultant to the American Jewish Committee in New York.
The Albanian Jewish community numbers only about 1,000, officials said.
The arrival of the Albanian Jews comes as Israel struggles to cope with a huge wave of arriving Soviet Jews.
Greek officials, too, were overwhelmed by the sudden influx.
"It looks like there are whole villages crossing - it's a madhouse up here," said a police spokesman in the Greek border village of Filiates on Sunday.
"Our police station has become a refugee center," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We don't know what to do with all these people."
He said it appeared the Albanian government had opened its frontier with Greece. "There can be no other explanation," he said. "A mosquito couldn't get across the border before."
Police have reported that Albanian border guards killed at least five people trying to cross the frontier in recent weeks.
Last week, the Greek government charged that Albanians were murdering many ethnic Greeks who tried to flee.
Greece says more than 350,000 ethnic Greeks live in southern Albania. The Albanian government says the figure is 60,000.
The Albanian Jews who left Sunday were the first in a planned operation dubbed "Flying Carpet" to take an estimated 500 Jews out of Albania, said Shula Bahat, a spokeswoman for the American Jewish Committee in New York.
In Israel, army radio quoted a Tel Aviv man who said the entire Jewish community of Albania was packed and ready to leave for Israel. He said some of his 60 Albanian relatives had arrived in Israel over the past two months.
It said immigrants from Albania had arrived in recent days at an absorption center in the southern city of Beersheva.
Tirana newspapers on Sunday published a new draft constitution that guarantees freedom of movement, as well as freedom of religion and private ownership, according to Albanian state radio.