Terry Waite, a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, arrived Wednesday in Beirut with hopes of liberating American hostages through secret contacts with their captors.
Waite, 46, a lay aide to Archbishop Robert A.K. Runcie, the primate of the Anglican Church, has a record of some success as a negotiator, having secured the release of four Britons detained in Libya last summer and three Anglican missionaries held in Iran in 1981.
"I am here on humanitarian grounds," he declared on arrival. "I am here because I want to see a resolution to a problem that has caused a lot of trouble to a lot of people for a long time," he told journalists as militiamen of the Shia Muslim movement Amal sought to shield him and escort him from the airport in a waiting car.
"I believe we have a sign of hope," Waite continued. "I am here today because I believe there is a reasonable chance of talking with the captors of the hostages."
Waite has described this as his most dangerous mission, but Wednesday he expressed optimism for the release of at least four Americans abducted in Muslim West Beirut over the last 20 months. The archbishop's representative said he has been in touch with the kidnapers of the Americans through an intermediary.
"I am optimistic, but I recognized the pathway is yet difficult and there is a long way to go," he added.
Four of the captive Americans appealed to President Reagan last Friday in an open letter to take action and bring them home by Christmas.
The four--Terry A. Anderson, Beirut bureau chief of the Associated Press; Father Lawrence Jenco, head of Catholic Relief Services; David P. Jacobsen, of Huntington Beach, Calif., director of the American University Hospital of Beirut, and Thomas Sutherland, dean of the university's agriculture school, also sent a confidential letter to Runcie asking him to intercede on their behalf.
Two other Americans have been reported kidnaped in Beirut--U.S. Embassy political officer William Buckley, who has been reported dead, and university librarian Peter Kilburn, who has not been heard from since he disappeared on Dec. 3, 1984.
'More Diffuse, Difficult'
Assessing his new mission, Waite said before leaving London that "the big difference from previous occasions is that one had an identifiable person or group or government to deal with, and this one is much more diffuse, much more difficult and probably much more dangerous."
Asked whether he will be acting on behalf of other Western captives, he replied: "I will be concerned about all the people who are kept hostage, but specifically I would be concerned about the American hostages because I have been involved with this problem for a long time."
On Tuesday, Runcie said that Waite was "joint envoy" of his church and of Pope John Paul II, but a Vatican spokesman said Wednesday that while the Pope is aware of Waite's mission and hopes it will succeed, he is not a papal envoy, the Associated Press reported.
No details were available on Waite's planned movements over the next few days, but he urged reporters to give him some "breathing space."
He said he will stay in Lebanon "as long as I have to." Asked if his negotiations may take him to Kuwait, he replied: "I have no plans to go anywhere else. I am going to stay here for the moment."
Waite would not disclose whom he will see in Beirut; however, Amal leader Nabih Berri provided Waite with a car, one of Berri's militiamen said.