The disappearance of British church envoy Terry Waite assumes graver proportions with each day that passes. Numerous reports that Mr. Waite has been detained by kidnappers, with whom he was trying to negotiate the release of Western hostages, have not been denied from any quarter.
In Damascus, Syria, the leader of the Shiite Muslim Amal militia, Nabih Berri, said after talks Monday that he believed Waite was being detained, but he did not know by whom. Also present was Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who added: ``I am worried for his safety, terribly worried.'' Waite has been missing since Jan. 20.
Lebanese leaders were reluctant to confirm publicly the open secret of Waite's detention, for fear of formalizing his status as a hostage, informed sources say. The hope was that, by leaving the situation uncertain, the door would be open for those holding Waite to hand him back as though nothing happened.
Hopes for such a low-profile resolution of the affair have now dimmed, with the passage of so much time and the publication of so many reports saying that Waite is being detained.
Hopes that the spiritual leaders of the radical Shiite kidnappers could persuade them to hand Waite back to his Druze protectors are also fading, according to informed Beirut sources. They say the kidnappers have resisted appeals that stress Waite's status as an honest intermediary - a status that has traditionally been honored in Islamic and Arab history.
The one hopeful fact observers point to is that the kidnappers themselves have not declared Waite to be a hostage.
The Islamic Jihad group, with whom Waite was believed to be negotiating the release of Americans Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, did not mention Waite in its statement Monday. The statement warned that the hostages would be killed in the event of any US military action against ``Muslims in the region, and especially in Lebanon.''
The warning, accompanied by a photograph of Mr. Anderson, was apparently prompted by US naval moves in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Both Mr. Jumblatt and Mr. Berri warned against any US attempt at military action. ``It would be the quickest way of killing off all the hostages,'' Berri said.
Some published reports in Beirut suggested that the kidnappers decided to detain Waite because they were alarmed by the US naval moves. But other Beirut sources ruled out that possible explanation. ``Nobody seriously believes the Americans are about to do anything with their warships,'' said one.
While it is now widely accepted that Waite is not at liberty, the reasons for his apparent detention by kidnappers who, he had met several times before are far from clear.
Some sources believe Waite has become strongly identified with the US in the kidnappers' minds, and that they may think they can pressure Washington by holding him.
The same sources believe the kidnappers may be accusing Waite and the US of misleading them over their main demand - the release of 17 Muslim radicals, jailed in Kuwait for carrying out bomb attacks there in 1983.
When Waite arrived in Beirut Jan. 12, there were reports from sources close to him saying he had sent an emissary of his own to Kuwait. But on Jan. 19, Kuwait issued a strong statement ruling out any release of the 17.
Islamic Jihad Monday accused the US of duplicity, without elaborating: ``We have shown goodwill many times, and released many of the hostages. But the [US] has lied and used this issue for personal gain ....''
Waite's prolonged detention puts Druze leader Jumblatt in a highly embarrassing position. His militia had escorted and protected Waite, until he went to see the kidnappers Jan. 20, with assurances for his safety.
Jumblatt took on the role of host and protector with some reluctance, diplomatic sources said. The Druze have longstanding historical links with Britain. In Islamic societies, the host has a sacred duty to protect his guest.
The concern voiced in some Beirut circles is that if Jumblatt himself cannot secure Waite's safe return, an ugly situation could develop. Any Druze move against Shiite radicals would be fraught with repercussions in Beirut's climate of violent anarchy and shifting alliances.