WASHINGTON -- In the macabre mathematics of Middle East kidnapping, Terry Waite and Thomas Sutherland were known as "high value hostages" so their release provides the clearest evidence so far that the decade-long horror is drawing to a close.
One source close to United Nations-led negotiations predicted yesterday that the last of the six remaining Western hostages would be freed within three weeks. The habitually cautious U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar allowed a bit more time to complete the process but predicted that all of the captives would be home for Christmas.
Waite, talking to reporters in Damascus, Syria, following his release, said that he had been told by his captors that all American hostages would be freed this month.
Bush administration officials, kept on the periphery of the negotiations by Washington's policy of refusing to deal with hostage-takers, welcomed the latest developments but confessed that they were surprised when news of the pending releases began to leak out over the weekend.
"We started hearing news of a possible release Saturday afternoon," said a U.S. counterterrorism official. "It stunned the hell out of us. We don't know specifically what's going on."
A source familiar with the U.N. negotiations said that Perez de Cuellar's special representative, Giandomenico Pico, broke the log jam by obtaining new information about the fate of an Israeli Air Force navigator and three soldiers who were taken prisoner during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The source did not disclose the information but said that, if verified, it would seem to satisfy Israel's demand to know what had become ofits service personnel.
This source said that the Israelis were now prepared to release the bulk of about 325 prisoners, mostly Lebanese Shiites, who are held by Israel's ally, the South Lebanon Army. That would be followed by the release of additional Western hostages, touching off the release of more Arab prisoners held by Israel.
Assuming the always delicate and tenuous negotiation process proceeds as planned, the last three releases, the source said, would be Ron Arad, the Israeli airman, followed by Terry Anderson, former chief Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press, and, finally, Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, a militant Shiite religious leader who was kidnapped in 1989 by Israeli commandos to exchange for Israeli hostages.
That scenario, cautiously labeled "plausible" by a U.S. official, demonstrates the relative value assigned to each hostage. Both sides seem determined to hold the best known of their hostages until the final stages to make sure that the other side does not renege.
Despite the optimism generated by the release of Waite and Sutherland, U.S. and U.N. officials cautioned that the remaining negotiations are delicate and could be disrupted easily. Moreover, the captors may be reluctant to part with their final hostages for fear they would be vulnerable to retaliation.
"The hostages have provided the captors with a shield, in the traditional sense of a hostage, against Syrian military pressure or Israeli retaliation," said Brian Jenkins, a hostage expert for the Los Angeles firm of Kroll Associates.
Nevertheless, Jenkins said that the drama seems ending
"The situation is like a puzzle where you connect the dots to make a picture," he said. "Enough of the dots have now been connected to show the overall picture. The only question now is how to connect the rest of the dots."