UNITED NATIONS — Despite the failure of a mysterious envoy from the Islamic Jihad kidnapers in Lebanon to show up at the United Nations, the White House kept to a mood of hesitant optimism Wednesday and prepared for the possible release of an American and a British hostage during the next few days.
At Kennebunkport, Me., where he is vacationing, President Bush said he felt that "there is more optimism" but still had no definite word about a release. "Overnight, there were persistent reports from a lot of capitals that something was going to happen," the President told reporters.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told a news briefing that these reports "focused on the possibility of two (released hostages) . . . a British hostage and an American."
"We mainly just wait and see," Fitzwater said. He added, however, that the government had activated a medical team to prepare to fly to the U.S. military hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, in case the hostages are released.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, designated by Islamic Jihad as a key intermediary in the drama, told reporters: "I am disappointed because nothing happened. I have heard nothing." The pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad, in a note delivered in Beirut on Tuesday, had promised to send an envoy to Perez de Cuellar within 48 hours with "an extremely important message."
Yet, despite Perez de Cuellar's insistence that he was not yet involved in any contacts with Islamic Jihad, the secretary general dispatched a trusted assistant, Giandomenico Picco, on a journey that, according to news reports, would take him to Damascus, Syria.
At first, the secretary general told reporters that Picco was going to Geneva on business unrelated to the hostages. Asked if he had sent anyone to the Middle East to make contact with Islamic Jihad, he replied, "Actually I don't know where Islamic Jihad has its headquarters."
Later, asked to clarify the discrepancy between his Geneva explanation and the news reports, Perez de Cuellar said: "I have my people in the place I need them. I cannot go any, any further."
The reports that Picco was en route to Damascus and the fact that Picco had occupied himself with hostage matters in the past evoked speculation that the hostages, like others before them, might be released in Syria, the only Arab nation to support Iran during the Iran-Iraq War.
Meanwhile, grenades exploded near a U.N. office in a Shiite Muslim district of Beirut, causing no injuries or damage but serving as a strange warning to Perez de Cuellar.
A phone caller to a Western news agency in Beirut, who identified himself only as a militant of a previously unknown group called the Organization for the Defense of the Prisoners' Rights, railed against any release of hostages without a concurrent release of more than 300 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli hands.
The caller denounced Perez de Cuellar as "the godfather of this deal" and warned him "not to get involved in suspicious acts that serve the interests of American intelligence agencies and the Israeli Mossad."
"I would be delighted to be the godfather of such an operation," Perez de Cuellar said later in New York, "because as you know very well, I have been working I don't know how many years, six or seven, working quietly in order to obtain the release of all the hostages."
At least 11 Western hostages, including six Americans, are believed held by various Muslim fundamentalist groups in Beirut.
The group calling itself Islamic Jihad holds Terry A. Anderson, the 43-year-old Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press who was kidnaped in March, 1985, and has been held longer than any other hostage, and Thomas Sutherland, the 60-year-old acting dean of agriculture at the American University in Beirut, who was kidnaped three months after Anderson.
Even as Washington prepared for a possible release in a mood that one official described as "cautious anticipation," the Bush Administration was trying not to excite expectations. Fitzwater, for example, told reporters that the government always prepared a medical team and alerted the families of hostages "whenever we hear rumors that have any possibility of validity at all."
In the same vein, President Bush, after a round of golf, told reporters that he hopes that expectations are not being raised this time only to be dashed as they have in the past.
"It's very cruel to get families' hopes up about the release of loved ones," Bush said. Referring to Anderson's sister, Bush said: "I saw Peggy Say on the telly. I just ache for her. I know her. I respect her. And it's just a cruel process, but let's hope something will come of this one."
According to the Associated Press, Say said she was especially hopeful because, for the first time, the State Department told her of the developments.