BERLIN, Nov. 9, 1989 (UPI) -- The East German government Thursday dropped all restrictions on travel to the West, and thousands of citizens of the communist state flocked to the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Iron Curtain, to taste their new freedom.
In announcing the easing of travel restrictions, East Berlin Communist Party chief Guenter Schabowski, a new member of the ruling Politburo, said the checkpoints would remain in force until Parliament enacts a new emigration and travel law that is expected to lift many restrictions.
He said police had been told to issue visas immediately to those who want to move to the West.
''Permanent trips out of the country can be made through all border crossing points of the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany or to West Berlin,'' said the government announcement issued after the second day of a crucial Central Committee meeting.
As soon as the announcement was issued, East Berliners began arriving at the checkpoints, including the 28-year-old Berlin Wall, in small groups, and crowds later gathered along the western side. Easterners and Westerners embraced, opened bottles of champagne and called for the wall to come down.
On the eastern side, cars were backed up for a mile at checkpoints as people waited to drive through, some wanting to visit relatives and others just hoping to get a drink in the West, customs officials said.
At Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin's famous crossing point for foreigners, guards firmly told East Berliners they would not be allowed through until the new regulations went into effect Friday, and then only with visas stamped in their passports.
But elsewhere the barriers were lifted. An estimated 1,000 people crossed at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint and cars were waved through the Invaliden Strasse checkpoint late in the evening.
At the Bornholmer checkpoint, a 45-year-old West Berlin man in a blue tracksuit described seeing East Berliners happily arriving in the West.
''One couple ran toward me, and as soon as they crossed the white demarcation line into West Berlin, they flung their arms around my neck and the three of us wept for joy,'' he said.
A West Berlin customs official at the checkpoint said a couple living on the eastern side of Bornholmer Strasse walked through the checkpoint to see whether the house numbers continued in order on the West Berlin side of the street, which was cut in half when the wall went up in 1961.
''They didn't stay long,'' the customs official said. ''They were simply curious to know more about the street they lived in which had been divided when the wall was built.'' They remained on the West Berlin side for only a half-hour, then returned home, he said.
West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper joked and laughed with a crowd near the Invaliden Strasse checkpoint Thursday night.
''This is a great moment for the city,'' Momper told West Berlin television shortly after the decision was announced. ''We have waited 28 years for this. It means that people who have been separated by the wall ever since it was built 28 years ago will now be able to see one another again.''
Momper appealed to West Berliners not to grumble if thousands of East Germans started pouring through the city barrier. ''Even if they want to stay -- and some of them will, of course -- be tolerant,'' he urged West Berliners.
During the first 10 months of 1989, more than 45,000 East Germans and ethnic Germans from Poland and the Soviet Union have poured into West Berlin. Many are being housed in temporary accommodations in old factory buildings, school gymnasiums, chapels and in city trade-fair pavilions.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who began a six-day visit to Poland Thursday, said from Warsaw that he was not sure whether his trip would continue as planned, and he left open the possibility he might have to return quickly to Bonn.
''This is a historic hour for Germany,'' Kohl said. ''The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) is in a dramatic situation. After my return home I will try to get in contact with (East German leader) Egon Krenz and have a personal conversation with him. It is our wish that the Democratic Republic undergoes profound reforms.''
In announcing the easing of travel restrictions, Schabowski said the ruling does not mean the Berlin Wall will be torn down. He said it was built for many reasons that still exist, but did not specify those reasons.
The announcement came as the East German government faced the gravest crisis in its history and culminated a week of rapid changes in response to the flight of about 110,000 refugees since August and mass demonstrations for free elections and democracy throughout the country.
The entire Cabinet resigned Tuesday to allow new Communist leader Egon Krenz to appoint more reform-minded ministers, there were wholesale changes in the ruling Politburo Wednesday, and Krenz even called for free elections without giving specifics.
The new travel policy was considered an admission that only drastic measures could stem growing popular discontent.
Schabowski said the new rules were effective immediately and there were no conditions to the free travel. The decision covers all border checkpoints, including those at the wall built in Berlin on Aug. 13, 1961, to halt a previous mass flight of refugees.
In Washington, U.S. officials welcomed the announcement.
President Bush applauded the opening of East German border as ''a dramatic development ... for freedom'' that may give the Berlin Wall ''very little relevance'' on the new political map of Europe.
''I don't think any single event is the end of what you might call the Iron Curtain,'' Bush said. ''But clearly this is a long way from the harshest Iron Curtain days.''
The action indicated acceptance of the fact that the Berlin Wall and the barriers and barbed wire on the long East-West German border have been made virtually obsolete by the ability of refugees to flee to West Germany through Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovkia -- a measure no longer necessary.
Even before the latest announcement, some West German politicians said if the mass flight continued, it could cause serious social problems in both East and West Germany.
In East Germany the refugee flood has caused a shortage of everything from waiters to doctors. In some areas the health service, and other services have been badly disrupted.
The refugees have jammed 140 reception centers in West Germany. Emergency quarters have been established in army barracks and even in converted brothels, but even before the influx West Germany had a shortage of 1 million homes.
Earlier Thursday, the East German Communist Party's Central Committee bowed to the demands of reformist members and scheduled a rare convention for next month ''to renew the party.''
The committee took the action on the second day of a three-day meeting in East Berlin held to draw up a reform program to slow the flight of refugees, restore the credibility of the government and defend the party's claim to be the country's dominant political force.
The convention Dec. 15-17 will be the third in the East German party's history and the first since 1956.
The Central Committee announcement said the convention would be empowered to decide on changes in the membership of the Central Committee and consider the state of the party and country and the party's tasks in the ''socialist revival.''
On the meeting's opening day Wednesday, the committee's 157 members unanimously confirmed Krenz as general secretary and with only one dissenting vote nominated Hans Modrow, 61, an early supporter of the reform policies of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to replace Willi Stoph, 75, as prime minister.
Stoph, parliament speaker Horst Sindermann, 74, and seven other elderly hard-liners were dropped from the Politburo, the top party body. The entire Cabinet headed by Stoph had resigned Tuesday to give Krenz, who replaced Erich Honecker as party leader Oct. 18, a chance to give the government new faces and a new reform image.
Krenz said he realized reforms would be the only way to stop the flow of refugees.
''Many people have lost faith in the ability to change social conditions in the German Democratic Republic and see no future for themselves,'' he said.
Under Honecker, East Germany was one of the most conservative and repressive states in the Soviet-dominated East bloc. The Honecker government, which had built the Berlin Wall in 1961, had little tolerance for dissent and ruthlessly crushed any opposition to communist rule, while imposing a strict orthodox Marxist economic system that kept East Germany far behind West Germany in its standard of living.