London — Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, is set to leave soon on a Christmas peace mission to Lebanon. Although the trip has been delayed by concerns for his safety, Mr. Waite plans to go at the earliest opportunity - both to bring some Christmas cheer to the hostages and to continue his efforts to free them.
This is not the first time Waite has paid a Christmastime visit to political prisoners in the Mideast. In previous years, he has visited Britons held in jail in Libya and Iran. He was later credited with obtaining the release of the eight Britons.
His apparent initial success in helping get three American hostages out of Lebanon, however, has been clouded in uncertainty following disclosures that the United States had traded arms for hostages in Iran. Some observers have suggested that the US used Waite as a fig leaf to conceal undercover operations in Iran to free the hostages. The effect has been to diminish in the public's mind the part Waite was widely believed to have played at the time in obtaining the release last month of American David Jacobsen.
Waite's determination to go back to the Middle East is seen here, in part, as a bid to proove that he is an independent negotiator free of links to the Reagan administration.
Soon after Mr. Jacobsen's release, Robert Oakley, former head of the US State Department's Office for Combatting Terrorism, had claimed that Lt. Col. Oliver North, since fired for his involvement in the Iran-contra affair, had helped Waite by arranging planes, shelter, and protection for him.
Waite makes it a matter of policy not to comment on his contacts. But when asked about his connection with Colonel North on a BBC Radio interview yesterday, Waite said it would be hardly surprising for him not to have made contact with the US administration because the people he was trying to free are US hostages.
In the interview, he said his association with the US was only to guarantee a secure route into and out of Beirut when the hostages were released. He has always denied any connection to US arms or financial deals.
Five Americans, seven Frenchmen, and five other hostages remain in Lebanon. Waite had been hopeful until the Iran-contra crisis blew up that at least two of the Americans - Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland - might be released soon.
Despite the setback to his mission resulting from publicity over the US role in Lebanon, Waite now feels, according to conversations he has had these past two weeks with contacts in Beirut, that the situation is not as pessimistic as he had previously thought. Group pledges to free French hostage
The Revolutionary Justice Organization pledged yesterday to release a French hostage as a Christmas goodwill gesture, Reuters reported. The group said its gesture followed mediation by Iran, Syria, and Algeria. It referred to signs of change in the behavior of the French government. French and Iranian officials are trying to resolve a financial dispute over a $1 billion loan to France by Iran.