NEW YORK (AP) _ Hostages returning from Lebanon needed protection from well-meaning outsiders so they could sort out their lives, a British military doctor who counseled some of them said Tuesday.

A Royal Air Force plan for returning hostages kept them at a British air base, away from the limelight, something the Americans did not do, Dr. Keron Fletcher said at a Columbia University seminar.

Fletcher, a Royal Air Force psychiatrist, has treated four of the ex- captives - American journalist Terry Anderson and Britons Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy - and is familiar with the cases of several others.

Getting the British hostages to accept protection from the outside world for a limited time ''required a bit of selling - the hostages didn't want to go from one prison to another,'' Fletcher said.

But, he said, ''They were very bewildered men, with emotions that changed on a daily basis. They needed peace and quiet with the people most important to them.''

In addition to protection from outsiders, an RAF plan for returnees guides them in setting priorities, picking up threads of life and preparing for the future, and it provides any medical treatment required.

Fletcher compared the Britons' experience with that of Anderson, whose release was openly celebrated at the U.S. air base at Weisbaden, Germany, and later at home.

Anderson was chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press when he was kidnaped by Shiite extremists in March 1985 and held nearly seven years before his release in December.

A carefully structured plan to provide a calm, low-key environment for Anderson and his family ''went out the window'' when President Bush invited him to Washington to help light the national Christmas tree, Fletcher said.

''All this running around to meet a schedule dictated by politicians didn't help him at all. It delayed his recovery by a few days,'' the doctor said.

After the Washington trip, Anderson began a private period and now is on a leave absence from the AP as a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Center at Columbia.

Anderson decided not to participate in the Freedom Forum seminar because he said it would be ''too painful,'' said Everette E. Dennis, the center's executive director.

Fletcher said the four hostages he counseled so far have shown no sign of post-traumatic stress, a disorder common among survivors of combat and other extended or major ordeals.