WORLD

Hostages in danger

BOB LEVIN February 16 1987
WORLD

Hostages in danger

BOB LEVIN February 16 1987

Hostages in danger

WORLD

All week the mystery deepened and the rumors flew. One Moslem religious source in Beirut said that Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy, had been taken hostage and tried by an underground court. He was being held, the source said, in the Lebanese capital’s Shiite Moslem quarter. But the West German newspaper Bild Zeitung reported that the 47-year-old Waite had attempted to escape and, in the process, had been shot and critically wounded. To confuse matters further, two Beirut taxi drivers said they spotted the imposing, bearded emissary, escorted by 10 gunmen and four Shiite sheiks, walking in a southern suburb on Thursday afternoon. “I saw him smiling and waving his hand to onlookers as he walked,” said one cab driver.

“He wore a grey overcoat. I stopped my taxicab to watch but the escorts waved me away shouting, ‘Don’t stop. Drive on.’ I did.” Militia sources were quick to dismiss the reports of both the shooting and the sighting, and Waite’s fate remained very much in doubt at week’s end. But there was no question that shadowy Lebanese kidnappers continued to hold 25 other foreign hostages. That caused tensions in the region to soar at midweek, when the United States amassed a flotilla of warships just 50 miles off the Lebanese coast. Rumors abounded of an imminent attempt to rescue the hostages. Afraid of being implicated, Washington’s European allies—led by France, Britain and West Germany—rejected a U.S. call for a secret meeting of seven countries, including Canada, to discuss the hostage crisis. Washington responded by reducing its naval presence off Lebanon, and many analysts doubted that U.S. forces would actually strike. “Our show of strength,” said one U.S. diplomat in Cyprus, “may as usual turn out to be a show of impotence.”

At the same time Iran, whose Shiite leaders hold sway over Lebanon’s Shiite hostage-takers, showed at least

some signs of conciliation. An Iranian diplomat in Ottawa said last week that Tehran would soon release Philip Engs, a 29-year-old Canadian engineer held for two months on suspicion of espionage (page 19). And Iran freed 31year-old Gerald Seib, Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Seib was charged with spying on Feb. 1 after taking a government-run tour of the battlefront with Iraq. He arrived in Zurich on Friday, having technically been expelled from Iran and forbidden to return.

But the world’s attention focused on Waite’s fate in Lebanon. Although the envoy had previously helped to free three U.S. hostages there, his credibility had been undermined by the suspicion that he was a front man —although perhaps an unwitting one—for U.S. arms-for-

hostages swaps with Iran. Waite, however, insisted that he was a free agent, and he returned to Beirut to try to persuade members of the Islamic Jihad (Holy War) faction to release four hostages—two Americans, one Briton and one Irishman. Finally, Beirut sources said, the kidnappers promised that he could meet with two Americans —39-year-old Terry Anderson, Mideast bureau chief for the Associated Press, and 56-year-old Thomas Sutherland, dean of agriculture at Beirut’s American University. But there were two conditions: Waite had to go after dark and without his Druze militia bodyguards. He did so, against the advice of the bodyguards, and has not been heard from since.

According to Middle East sources, the kidnappers have accused Waite of reneging on

an earlier promise to secure the release of 17 fundamentalists convicted of bomb attacks in Kuwait. Moslem militia officials said that Waite was sharing a cell with Anderson and Sutherland—and had neither been shot nor allowed to take a leisurely stroll. “The guy is being held in a basement,” said one senior militia official, “and his captors are not going to take him for a walk, even if the weather is nice.”

Waite was clearly prepared for his predicament. The archbishop, Most Rev. Robert Runde, said his envoy had specifically requested before leaving London that “no one should risk danger by coming to look for him.” Still, the Druze militiamen entrusted with Waite’s safety were plainly embarrassed by his abduction and have been appealing to the radicals for his release, emphasizing a traditional theme in Islamic culture: the sacrosanct status of an honest rasoul, or messenger. And at week’s end Al-Shiraa, the Beirut weekly which broke the U.S. arms-forg hostages scandal last £ October, predicted that Waite might be freed this week “when the military storm in the area cools off.”

Waite was not the only individual in jeopardy. The Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine threatened to kill four hostages—three Americans and an Indian—on Feb. 9 unless Israel released 400 jailed guerrillas. Israeli officials said they would not meet the demand. Meanwhile, the Sixth Fleet gathered off the Lebanese coast, growing to as many as 35 ships and a 1,900-man Marine amphibious assault force. Then, faced with mounting concern among Washington’s allies who feared the consequences to their own nationals of an American assault, the Pentagon appeared to have second thoughts and ordered seven ships to leave the area. Iranian President Ali Khamenei warned that any U.S. “provocation” in the region would only make Iran “more steadfast and inflexible in its enmity” toward Washington. It could also bring additional distress—or worse—to Terry Waite and the other hostages.

-BOB LEVIN with JIM MUIR in Cyprus, ROSS LAVER in London and WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington

JIM MUIR

ROSS LAVER

WILLIAM LOWTHER