Thousands of Albanian refugees wandered the streets of this port city in search of food Saturday after spending the night sleeping in plastic bags on the docks or on classroom floors. Rain added to their misery.
In Albania, authorities tried to stem the flow of people fleeing their country. A journalist with the official media said Albanian police and military forces stormed a ship in the port of Durres and forced hundreds of would-be refugees off the boat and out of the harbor.The police and military fired their weapons to force about 2,000 people off the Albanian ship Partizani, and up to 10 people were wounded, said a journalist who spoke by phone from Tirana, the Albanian capital.
As people left the ship they reportedly had to pass through two lines of police, who beat them with clubs, said Genc Pollo, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party.
A 2-year-old child reportedly choked to death from tear gas fumes, Pollo said, and there were unconfirmed reports two people died in a Durres hospital.
The Italian government, which has been criticized for its slow response to the influx of Albanians, said Saturday it would begin dispersing some of the 20,000 Albanians to refugee camps around the country. Some of the refugees have asked to return home.
A blockade enforced by two Italian warships and other naval vessels was succeeding in holding back the tide of would-be asylum seekers fleeing their communist homeland across the Adriatic Sea.
The Foreign Ministry in Rome said it has received assurances from Albania that the Tirana government "will do everything possible" to halt the exodus and eliminate the conditions that are causing it. An Italian delegation is to travel to Albania to discuss the emergency.
Authorities in Brindisi and the nearby port of Bari, meanwhile, seized 13 ships which brought Albanian refugees to Italy over the past week. Magistrates said the vessels were used for illegal transport of immigrants.
Italian officials say most of the Albanians appear to be economic refugees, and that those who do not qualify for political asylum will likely be deported.