LONDON — The British Foreign Office said Tuesday that it has begun a search for Terry Waite, the Church of England envoy in Lebanon, amid increased concern that he may have been kidnaped.
Foreign Office officials confirmed that the British ambassador in Lebanon, John Gray, accompanied by other British diplomats, crossed Tuesday into the Muslim-controlled western part of Beirut in search of information about Waite.
"We are all very concerned," Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe told reporters. "Plainly, people are anxious, and understandably so. He has been undertaking an important task in circumstances which are not free from danger."
Waite, who last year escorted American hostages David P. Jacobsen and Father Lawrence M. Jenco to freedom, returned to Beirut on Jan. 13 in an attempt to negotiate the release of two other Americans held by the radical, pro-Iranian Shia Muslim group called Islamic Jihad. He also hoped to learn more about the condition of two British nationals held by Muslim guerrillas in Lebanon.
Waite reportedly slipped out of his Beirut hotel before dawn Jan. 20, apparently to meet with members of Islamic Jihad, whose name means Islamic Holy War.
Although Waite has not been seen since, Church of England officials here said over the weekend that they were in touch with Druze militia leaders who had guaranteed Waite's safety and, indirectly, with Islamic Jihad, and that both had reported him safe.
But concern arose when the official Kuwaiti news agency reported Monday that Waite had been placed under house arrest by Islamic Jihad after failing to reach agreement on the release of the two Americans.
Archbishop Refuses Questions
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert A. K. Runcie, read a carefully worded statement to the press Tuesday at the Church of England's Lambeth Palace headquarters. He declined to answer questions, saying that the situation was too sensitive.
Runcie's statement expressed concern about Waite's well-being but was careful to express confidence in the guarantees given by Muslim leaders for Waite's safety.
"We are, of course, greatly concerned for Terry Waite's safety and for the success of his mission to negotiate for the release of hostages in Lebanon," Runcie stated. "However, we have been promised all possible security by Islamic leaders who are his hosts, and I believe that they have been true to their promise."
Runcie emphasized that there is no direct evidence that Waite is being held against his will.
The British Broadcasting Corp., quoting "informed sources in Beirut," reported late Tuesday that Waite was still negotiating for the release of the two Americans and that the talks have reached what it described as an "extremely delicate and sensitive stage."
The BBC added that Waite's life was not at risk but that he "may not have complete freedom of movement."
Although Waite's brief disappearances from public view on previous trips to Beirut have been interpreted more as signs of progress than cause for alarm, the unusual length of his absence this time, coupled with a rash of additional kidnapings in the last two weeks, has caused concern.
At least nine foreigners, including three Americans, have been abducted since Jan. 13, bringing to at least 25 the number of Westerners known to be held in Lebanon against their will. At least eight are Americans.
Waite is said to be negotiating for the freedom of Thomas Sutherland, 55, acting dean of agriculture at the American University in Beirut, who was abducted in September, 1985, and Terry A. Anderson, 39, chief Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press, who was seized in March, 1985.
Waite's present mission is his first trip to Beirut since it became public knowledge last November that the delivery of U.S. arms to Iran was linked to the release of some American hostages.
Disclosure of the arms deal reportedly angered Muslim extremists and brought accusations that Waite had been acting as an American agent, a charge that he and people who know him have denied emphatically.
At a news conference last November in London, Waite emphasized the humanitarian, Christian nature of his mission and said that news of the arms deal had caused many of those in Beirut who had previously helped him to break off contact.
He talked of being placed in a political crossfire and said that speculation about his role in the release of Jenco and Jacobsen had "done immense harm."
Brother of hijack suspect arrested in West Germany. Page 8.