DAMASCUS, Syria — Terry Waite, the British church envoy who disappeared into Lebanon's opaque underworld while working to free two American hostages, was released Monday along with U.S. hostage Thomas M. Sutherland after both had been captives for years.
The release, the most significant breakthrough in the nearly decade-old hostage crisis, came amid reports that Shiite Muslim kidnapers have pledged to free the three remaining American hostages by the month's end, perhaps beginning within the next five days.
A pale, red-eyed Waite, talking publicly for the first time after he was handed over by Syrian authorities to British Ambassador Andrew Green, issued a strong plea for "peaceful, humane and civilized ways" of settling problems in the Middle East. He said that one of his kidnapers, in the hours before his release, expressed regret for the hostage-taking in Lebanon.
"He . . . said to me that, 'We apologize for having captured you. We recognize now that was a wrong thing to do, that holding hostages achieves no useful, constructive purpose.' "
Waite, 52, said he was also told that Beirut University College professor Alann Steen, 52, and financial administrator Joseph J. Cicippio, 61, two of three Americans remaining in captivity, could be released by the end of the month, perhaps within the next five days.
Terry A. Anderson, 44, the Associated Press' chief Middle East correspondent and the longest-held captive in Lebanon, could be free by the month's end, he said.
Sutherland, a 60-year-old college professor and one of the men whom Waite was sent to free when he disappeared in Lebanon on Jan. 20, 1987, talked spiritedly about his own nearly 6 1/2 years in captivity.
He teased Waite about his failed mission. "All I can say about the English, they take a hell of a long time to get things done," he said. "He came to get me out five years ago, and it's taken him five years to get out. But finally he's taking me home, and I'm very happy about that."
Sutherland was flown today to Frankfurt, Germany, aboard a U.S. military plane. Fog and rain prevented the usual routine of a freed hostage being taken by helicopter to the nearby U.S. hospital in Wiesbaden. Instead, he was bundled into a limousine with U.S. Ambassador Robert Kimmitt for the trip.
A dozen rain-soaked hospital patients and staff members stood on the balconies in the chilly dawn to cheer Sutherland. Burying his face in a pink bouquet, he exalted, "I haven't seen flowers in 6 1/2 years!"
Sutherland told reporters, "I've never felt so good in all my life as I feel now." His wife, Jean, was expected to arrive later today. Sutherland said he plans to give her "a tremendous kiss."
"I'm going to thank her for being so faithful, for staying in Beirut," he said.
Asked if he had news of the pending release of any other hostages, Sutherland said, "They should be coming out shortly."
Waite was flown on a Royal Air Force jet to Cyprus, after being reunited with his brother, Donald, at the home of the British ambassador in Damascus. Waite was to remain overnight in Cyprus before flying on to England.
The two men brought to six the number of hostages released since August, when U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar began efforts to negotiate freedom for the remaining captives in Lebanon. The three Americans, two Germans and an Italian are thought to be the only Westerners still held.
Predictions by Waite, Perez de Cuellar and Syria's deputy foreign minister that all remaining hostages could be freed soon, along with the release of Waite, one of the Shiite Muslims' most prominent captives, raised speculation that an end to the long-running hostage drama could be imminent.
The Qatar news agency quoted an unidentified spokesman for Islamic Jihad, the group that held Waite and Sutherland and still holds Anderson, as saying it expects Israel to reciprocate by releasing another batch of Arab prisoners. The spokesman said he hopes that Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, kidnaped by Israeli paratroopers in 1989, would be among those freed.
Israel already has released 66 of more than 300 Arab prisoners being detained mostly in South Lebanon. It did so after receiving information it had long sought about the fates of several Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon since as long ago as 1982. But Israel is unlikely to free a key bargaining chip such as Obeid before there is word about the fate of Ron Arad, a British-born Israeli air force navigator whose fighter jet was shot down in October, 1986. He is believed to be alive.
In Los Angeles, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he welcomes the release of Sutherland and Waite but remains "upset" and "disappointed" over the missing Israeli servicemen.