In the news: Terry Waite - Missionary heading for another Heart of Darkness

TERRY WAITE was once asked if he would intervene again on behalf of hostages, in spite of the five years he spent chained to various radiators in Beirut after his last involvement. Most people would have found it easy to say 'no', but not the 6ft 7ins former envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"If I was sufficiently convinced that I was the right person to do it, I would go back, not to cock a snook or say, 'look at what this great man dare do', but simply because it might be worth a try," he replied.

Good as his word, Mr Waite is set to intervene again, this time on behalf of three Americans held hostage by Colombian guerrillas since 1993. He flew to New York yesterday to begin talks that might eventually lead him into the South American jungle.

The news was greeted, inevitably, with astonishment and, in some quarters, with a little cruelty. Asking Terry Waite to rescue hostages is, after all, akin to offering Nelson Mandela the job of prison officer on Robben Island. The fact that he is being accompanied by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of A Hundred Years of Solitude, did nothing to relieve the sense of disbelief.

Mr Waite, 58, was due to meet Marquez and fellow Beirut hostage Terry Anderson last night to decide upon a course of action to secure the release of Mark Rich, 28, Richard Tenenoff, 41, and 49-year-old Charles Mankins, al kidnapped from a border village in Panama five years ago.

The hostages' families turned to Mr Waite after all their other efforts failed. He admits that negotiations might eventually lead him to Colombia, where kidnapping is commonplace, but he insists that he will not place himself in danger.

"After what happened the last time, people might think I'm crazy for doing it again, but I'm going into it with my eyes open," he said. However, he has said on many occasions that he went into the Lebanese negotiations with eyes open - even when he was blindfolded and led into 1,763 days of captivity by armed Hizbollah militia.

That was in January 1987 while he was acting as the special envoy of Dr Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, on a mission to free a number of Western hostages. It has since emerged that Dr Runcie thought the enterprise foolhardy and that Mr Waite was being used as a stooge for an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. Coupled with disclosures about arguments with other hostages and accusations that he has a fondness for the limelight, the former envoy has taken a mild battering since his release in 1991.

Of the latter accusation, he once said: "You take a high profile because you're trying to keep the case of the hostages alive. Of course, your own ego is involved - you can't be good in the publicity field without that - and if you're a human being, some element of vanity and pride will be present. But nobody has the right to say I was involved for those reasons. Publicity! It's a hell of a way to get publicity!"

After his release, Mr Waite had some psychological problems and he accepted all the help he was offered in fairness to his wife, Frances, and their four children.

He always spoke glowingly of the support he received from Frances and promised not to put her through the same anguish again. It will be interesting, as the media gather, to see how far into his modern-day Heart of Darkness Terry Waite will be prepared to go in the pursuit of freedom for three strangers.

DREAMS OF FREEDOM

In the early days of his captivity, Terry Waite was haunted by a dream which was both sad and uplifting.

"I was walking along a beach in a part of the world I didn't know, and, suddenly, felt I was lost and alone," he said. "Then I saw some figures walk along the beach and they took me by the hand to a village and safety. Then I recognised them as my own children."

He said the image gave him the strength to go on.

AN AFRICAN COUP

When Mr Waite's wife, Frances, was eight months pregnant with their son Mark (they also have three grown-up daughters, twins Ruth and Claire, and Gillian), the family was caught up in the Ugandan coup led by Idi Amin.

One night they heard gunfire. "In the morning there was a body at the bottom of the garden," Mr Waite recalls. "More were scattered around. Bullets started flying. We dived back into the house and turned on the BBC World Service and learned there'd been a coup."

KEEPING WATCH

In spite of the privations he endured during captivity, including beatings and a mock execution, Mr Waite says he is not bitter. "I look back on the experience with gratitude," he once said.

When he was finally released, he asked his captors for the return of his watch, which was taken after his abduction. When they told him it had been lost, he boomed at them: "What do you mean? You can't just go around stealing people's watches!" So they went out and bought him a new one.

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