BRITISH outrage over the claimed death of US Lt. Col. William Higgins gained an extra dimension when Shiite extremists were reported as threatening to murder Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, if Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid was not released. Mr. Waite was abducted in Beirut two and a half years ago while negotiating for the release of other hostages.
Britain's newly appointed foreign secretary, John Major, described the reported execution of Colonel Higgins as ``brazen savagery'' and ``cold-blooded murder.'' He declined to comment on suggestions that Israel should release Sheikh Obeid in order to reduce tensions over the hostage crisis.
Mr. Major confirmed, however, that Britain was in touch with both Israel and the United States about the abduction of Obeid by Israeli commandos last week. Privately British officials were saying that the seizure of the sheikh had been an unwise move.
Asked how he felt about Israeli claims that it had been necessary to abduct Obeid, Major said: ``I understand the point that has been made by the Israelis, but I think we need very cool heads at the moment.''
In messages to Washington, the foreign secretary urged the Bush administration to call on Israel to free Obeid, these officials say. British officials add that Major told Israel that its action has threatened to create an uncontrollable situation.
As well as being concerned about Waite, the British government is worried about John McCarthy, a journalist seized in April 1986, and Roger Cooper, a businessman being held in a Tehran jail without trial on allegations of spying.
Michael Latham, chairman of the all-party British-Israel parliamentary group, said of the kidnappers: ``These men are barbarians, and if the new Iranian government has any control over them, or even a vestige of decency, they should use all their efforts to release all outstanding hostages.''
Mr. Latham declined to say so, but sentiment in Britain's Jewish community appeared to favor the view that Israel had seriously miscalculated in seizing Obeid. There was sympathy, however, for Israeli frustration at having three of its own nationals in Shiite hands.
Dr. Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, accused some parts of the British news media of worsening the crisis by suggesting that Waite's life had been placed in danger. Some tabloid newspapers, reporting the claimed death of Higgins, claimed that Waite's life was in jeopardy.
``There is a need for moderation and restraint in how people talk about the hostage crisis,'' Dr. Runcie said. ``I have been distressed to see newspaper placards saying `Waite next.'''