In the westernmost towns of East Timor, armed militias are preparing for war if that is the only way to block this territory's separation from Indonesia. In the mountainous east, guerrillas who support independence are hoping for peace.

At militia checkpoints here in the western Badlands, stronghold of the anti-independence movement, tough-looking young men with spears, daggers, machetes and homemade rifles demand identification papers. Anyone connected with the United Nations or pro-independence groups is turned back.

A contrasting mood prevails near the eastern end of the province, where the Armed Force for the Liberation of East Timor is preparing to celebrate the fulfillment of a 24-year-old dream of independence in a referendum set for Monday. "It was a very long and difficult road to get here," said rebel deputy commander Taur Matan Ruak, 43. "I never dreamt the people would one day have an opportunity to vote."

The difference in attitudes between the armed groups illustrates the tensions pulling at East Timor, a former Portuguese territory in dispute since Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed it a year later. The invasion set off civil strife and abuses by the Indonesian military that are thought to have cost more than 200,000 lives.

Now, 15 months after the collapse of the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, there are signs that Indonesia's top political and military leaders in Jakarta are willing to let East Timor go its own way peacefully, before the situation damages the country's international image further. But it is unclear whether the anti-independence militias and their local military backers will go along. If not, violence could erupt, presenting the government with a prolonged crisis.

U.N. officials here said they have strong indications that the militias expect the independence referendum to pass and are planning to ignite a civil war when the results are announced. They have backing from local Indonesian army commanders and access to modern weapons. "We've known about the [post-vote] preparations for war for some time," a senior U.N. official said.

The mood among the pro-independence guerrillas at Waimori, one of four guerrilla cantonment sites set up under a pre-election agreement between the two rival factions, is upbeat. The rebels still use their noms de guerre, such as "Hunter" and "The Tiger of Kablaki." Their shoulder-length hair, like their mismatched uniforms and weapons -- old Portuguese rifles, outdated M-14s -- speak of their years in the hills.

These days, the talk is of what life will be like now that the struggle for independence seems nearly complete. The festive atmosphere at Waimori was enhanced on a recent day by the festive wedding of three guerrilla couples.

In his 24 years in the mountains, deputy commander Ruak said, what he has missed most is peace. "Now I hope it returns quickly, so I can return to my family and friends."

Ruak said he is aware that the referendum result, widely expected to be overwhelmingly in favor of independence, may not be fully accepted and that the militias in the west may be planning to wage their own guerrilla war. But he said he is not worried because the militias do not pose a military threat. "I don't believe they'll do it," he said. "I have the experience of 24 years fighting. And if they do, we'll be able to sort it out in a day."

Ruak said he believes the vote will be 70 percent for independence, 30 percent against. He said it the affirmative vote would be higher were it not for intimidation of voters and violence by the anti-independence militias. "So the Indonesian government doesn't feel ashamed, I'm going to give them 30 percent," he said.

At the other end of the territory, though, there is a completely different perspective. "Ninety-nine percent!" declared militia commander Joao Tavares, when asked how many people would reject independence and accept an offer of East Timorese autonomy within Indonesia. "If I say 100 percent, there would be some complaints from the other side."

At his sprawling hillside villa, just a few miles from the border with West Timor, the 68-year-old commander -- surrounded by scores of chanting, singing militia members -- offered his views on the prospects for violence and the role he now plays. The setting was in coffee-growing country, the most economically viable part of East Timor.

"Because I am the commander of the pro-integration force, they ask for my order: Is there war or not war?" said Tavares, the former appointed administrator of the Indonesian government in East Timor. "If I want war, I say war. If I want peace, I say peace. But I don't want to have any more war. I want peace."

Many disagree. U.N. officials and diplomats said they have seen all the preparations for war. Among other indications, they said, militiamen have started moving their families across the border. The militias have terrorized villagers, burned houses, kidnapped and killed independence supporters, taken and destroyed people's voter registration cards.

Ian Martin, the head of the U.N. mission in East Timor, got a firsthand look at the worsening security situation in Maliana last week, when he flew here by helicopter with Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials assigned to help organize the referendum. Just before his arrival, scores of militia members, some armed, surrounded the U.N. compound, forcing U.N. security personnel to begin evacuation procedures. Some journalists and photographers threatened by the mob took refuge inside the compound for several hours.

Carrying weapons is supposed to be illegal before the referendum, just as the militia checkpoints were supposed to be dismantled. But the police, who are in charge of security, make no attempt to intervene. As one U.N. official said, "They [the militias] usually gather in groups of about 400. So the police take a pragmatic approach, probably based on survival."

Oddly, the apparent breakdown of security in the western part of the territory comes as U.N. officials said they were getting signals of acquiescence from senior Indonesian government leaders in Jakarta. Some analysts said President B.J. Habibie and the armed forces commander, Gen. Wiranto, may have been embarrassed by the earlier militia attacks against U.N. staff members and may have resigned themselves to the likelihood that East Timor will vote to separate.

According to this view, the Indonesian leadership in Jakarta now wants to see a peaceful end to the turmoil, and the recent replacement of the military commander in East Timor may be a sign of the changed attitude. The key question now, U.N. officials said, is why this new attitude in Jakarta has not translated into a reining-in of the militias.

One view is that the Indonesian armed forces may be operating under dual lines of command, with East Timor's militia groups directed and controlled not by the army's regular territorial forces, but by the special operations division known as Kopassus and by intelligence services that bypass the local command structure. One official described the militia operation here as run by "a special black operations unit within Kopassus. They won't be the people wearing uniforms -- you won't ever see them."

Also, some lower-ranking army officers have been in East Timor for years and are considered well entrenched with business interests here, mostly in imports. Four army sergeants based in Maliana have been implicated in militia activity; U.N. official Martin last week publicly called for their removal but did not name them.

From his hilltop mansion, militia commander Tavares denied any links between his men and the Indonesian army. He also said that his forces had turned in all their weapons and were now confined, like the pro-independence rebels, to designated cantonment sites. But about an hour later, he escorted reporters to a pro-autonomy rally in the nearby town of Balibo, where he posed in the town center with about 300 supporters waving spears, machetes, pistols and homemade rifles.

Independence Referendum

East Timorese vote Monday on whether to become independent from Indonesia.

Registered voters: 430,000 to 450,000. Anyone 17 or older who can provide proof of birth in East Timor, or birth of one parent in East Timor, or whose spouse or one of the spouse's parents was born in East Timor is entitled to vote.

Polling stations: More than 700

Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Observers: 1,400 registered international observers, accredited by the United Nations.

Vote count: Expected to be complete one week after balloting.

SOURCE: United Nations