The mix of life sentences, lesser jail terms and acquittals that a civilian court gave nine military ex-rulers yesterday was seen here today as likely to prolong rather than end a divisive national debate over who should be judged for crimes committed by the armed forces during Argentina's war on left-wing terrorism.

The six-judge federal appeals panel left open the possibility that other, lower-ranking officers would also be tried for their involvement in the repression of the late 1970s.

While federal prosecutors and human rights activists generally said they found most of the sentences relatively mild, they were encouraged that the court said it would forward the massive documentation collected in the eight-month trial to the country's top military court. The material, said the court, would assist in cases against lower-ranking commanders who had "operative responsibility" during the repression.

The judges did not explicitly say they favor trials of additional military personnel, but this was widely inferred from the advertised transfer of evidence.

"This ruling will not close the chapter on investigations," said Emilio Mignone, who heads the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires. "It will do just the opposite -- prolong them indefinitely."

Defense Minister Roque Carranza, the only senior official to comment publicly on the verdict, told reporters this morning that the court's decision marked the end of one stage and the beginning of another.

Gabriel Moreno Ocampo, a deputy prosecutor who helped argue the case against the nine ex-junta members, observed that the judges had confirmed the existence of "a criminal plan systematically applied" by military commanders. This, he said, would be important in the prosecution of other officers.

"They are no small number," said the government attorney about the hundreds of additional officers accused of carrying out the repression ordered by their superiors. "There are many officers who are clearly on record as accomplices in this criminal plan."

The armed forces and conservatives in civilian ranks who have opposed further trials took some heart that future hearings were likely to be held before a military tribunal. The civilian court's hearing of the military ex-rulers was unprecedented here. Some said they had expected it to render more severe sentences in most instances.

Two former commanders -- ex-president Jorge Videla of the Army and Emilio Massera of the Navy -- were found guilty of numerous homicides, illegal detentions, tortures and robberies and were sentenced to life in prison. Three other junta members convicted of torturing and robbing -- Orlando Ramon Agosti (Air Force), Armando Lambruschini (Navy) and Roberto Eduardo Viola (Army) -- got jail sentences ranging from 4 1/2 to 17 years. Four ex-commanders -- Leopoldo Galtieri (Army), Jorge Anaya (Navy), Basilio Lami Dozo (Air Force) and Omar Graffigna (Air Force) -- were acquitted.

Several leading politicians of President Raul Alfonsin's Radical party and of the opposition Peronist movement said the court decision, while unsatisfying for many, would contribute to stabilizing and strengthening democracy in Argentina.

But human rights activists condemned the rulings as weak and unacceptable. Hundreds of people marched through central Buenos Aires last night shouting "national shame" in a spontaneous protest against the verdicts.

The court action appeared to serve as a spur for these groups to press for the punishment of all military officials not yet brought to trial for crimes they are alleged to have committed under the seven years of military rule, which ended in 1983.

A statement issued by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, one of the organizations of relatives of victims, said: "We will continue working so that this will be only the beginning of the trial of each and every one of those implicated in crimes against humanity, crimes that the universal conscience does not permit."

Federal prosecutor Julio Strassera, who had asked for life imprisonment for five of the defendants and jail terms of 10 to 15 years for the rest, said today he was studying the full 2,000-page written verdict before deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. Lawyers for Massera and Videla have already announced they would appeal.