More than eight days after he dropped out of sight to conduct secret contacts with Beirut kidnappers, the belief is gaining ground that British Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite is not at liberty. Late Wednesday, there was still no word on his fate, despite expressions of concern from British political and church leaders, and appeals from British diplomats for information. Archbishop Robert Runcie, Britain's ambassador in Lebanon, John Gray, and others have stressed that they have no evidence that Mr. Waite is being detained.
But there has been no denial from any quarter of published and broadcast reports that Waite had been detained by the kidnappers with whom he was negotiating. Nor, most important, has there been any word from Waite himself.
Officials of the Druze militia, which escorted Waite after his arrival in Beirut Jan. 12, have withheld comment on his disappearance. They said Waite had dispensed with his armed Druze escorts after he slipped out of his west Beirut hotel Jan. 20 to begin secret negotiations.
The independant Beirut newspaper, An Nahar, Wednesday quoted ``informed sources'' as saying the kidnappers did not intend to add Waite to the hostages. The report said they had given guarantees of the envoy's safety to an unnamed prominent Lebanese personality who was acting as intermediary.
But the paper, implying that Waite was indeed in some sort of trouble, said his ``case'' was being dealt with ``quietly and far from the limelight, in order to avoid any action the kidnappers might take.''
Other informed sources in Beirut said they did not believe Waite's life to be in danger, but that he was the recipient of ``compulsory hospitality'' and confined to a sector of the largely-Shiite Muslim southern suburbs of Beirut. His detention as a ``compulsory guest,'' they said, aimed to step up pressure for early results in the talks over some Western hostages. The pro-Iranian, underground Islamic Jihad organization, with which Waite is believed to be negotiating, has centered its demands on the release of 17 Muslim extremists imprisoned in Kuwait.
Kuwait has frequently said that under no circumstances will it release the convicts, sentenced in connection with the 1983 bomb attacks on the US and French embassies. Kuwait's foreign minister publicly reiterated that refusal Monday.
Given the Kuwaiti position, it was not clear on what grounds Waite could have been negotiating, other than stressing the humanitarian appeals which have been the cornerstone of his approach.