The people of East Timor have voted overwhelmingly to throw off 24 years of Indonesian military occupation and to become the world's newest -- and one of its smallest and poorest -- independent nations, according to the results of a U.N.-sponsored referendum announced today.

The margin of the vote -- 78.5 percent rejected autonomy, thereby choosing independence for East Timor, while 21 percent favored a new autonomy within Indonesia -- was a decisive victory for independence forces that have battled militarily and diplomatically for more than a quarter-century for the right of the territory's 800,000 people to choose their own future. More than 98 percent of eligible East Timorese voted despite militia intimidation and attacks.

The results are a major humiliation for the government in Jakarta, which until this year had considered East Timor the 27th Indonesian province and refused even to discuss the territory's political status in international circles. President B.J. Habibie waged a high-stakes gamble with his "snap referendum" that East Timor would choose autonomy over independence. Now with the loss, Indonesia -- the world's fourth-largest country -- appears in danger of splitting apart.

"The people of East Timor have thus rejected the proposed special autonomy and expressed their wish to begin a process of transition towards independence," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said as he announced the results in a session of the Security Council on Friday night. "After 24 years of conflict, East Timor now stands on the threshold of what we all hope will be a process of orderly and peaceful transition."

The results were announced simultaneously at the United Nations, and in Dili, the East Timor capital, which has been the scene of violent retaliation by bands of militias supported by the Indonesian army in the days since the voting. Militias were reportedly converging on Dili today.

"I call on East Timor society and the whole of Indonesian people to accept the [result of the vote] sincerely and patiently," Habibie said in a speech prepared for broadcast later today, the Reuters news agency reported.

By mid-morning in Dili, a steady stream of people carrying boxes and suitcases arrived at the port looking for any available space on a Red Cross ship that had dropped off supplies and was departing empty. "We're leaving because the situation is really bad," said a man trying to scale a fence with his family. Asked whether he had a ticket, he said, "No, but I'll pay anything to get on." Twelve Australians who observed the voting were also leaving on the boat along with the owner of a major Dili hotel.

The airport was also jammed with people trying to board Hercules cargo planes sent by the military to evacuate relatives of military and police officials, Indonesian civil servants and Chinese businessmen at exorbitant prices.

The referendum result must still be ratified by Indonesia's parliament, a step that is not necessarily a foregone conclusion given the passions about allowing a part of the country to break away. If granted independence, administration of East Timor would be turned over provisionally to the United Nations. In his remarks announcing the tally, Annan said, "There are no winners or losers today."

However, other restive provinces in Indonesia's vast archipelago are also demanding a vote on their future, particularly Aceh in the far west, which is waging a fierce secessionist struggle. Habibie and the country's military commanders have said that Timor was a "special case," but the vote here could set in motion a momentum that could cause the country to unravel.

To fight the independence vote, some elements of the Indonesian military covertly created, armed and backed 13 separate partisan militia groups. They have killed and kidnapped leaders of the independence movement, burned houses, driven thousands of villagers from their homes and into makeshift refugee camps, and have warned that a vote against autonomy would lead to civil war.

The militias might now opt for a new strategy, trying to partition the tiny territory by claiming for themselves the western side of East Timor, which is closer to Indonesia proper, where anti-independence sentiment is stronger. That possibility has become more realistic in recent days, after militias seized control of several western towns, notably Maliana, Gleno and Liquica.

On Friday, militias burned houses in the Dili neighborhood of Becora, consolidated their control over Maliana, driving out a convoy of 54 U.N. staff members, and began blockading food shipments to the pro-independence Falintil guerrillas who are divided into four base camps. A U.N. official said at least 20 people were believed dead in Maliana, where more than 200 houses had been burned, and 100 civilians, including women and children, had taken refuge in the police station.

The Indonesian army appeared resigned to the vote's result. Military trucks arrived at a high-walled compound used as an intelligence-gathering and interrogation center, and soldiers began removing sensitive communications equipment. Armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto ordered the deployment of two crack battalions to the province to try to restore order.

Some analysts saw signs of rifts among the various militias, who joined ranks for the post-referendum rampage after a largely peaceful vote Monday. The split was particularly noticeable between Besi Merah Putih (BMP), which is moving into the capital and is considered one of the most violent militias, and the Aitarak "Thorn" militia, which has long held sway here.

While there have been no clashes, friction over turf has emerged, and some here have warned of the possibility of militias battling each other in the streets. The battle in front of the U.N. headquarters on Wednesday -- which sent refugees and journalists scrambling into the compound for safety -- appeared to be a BMP-Aitarak operation. But some diplomats said the skirmish may actually have been a turf battle.

Some fear the militias may be out of control, no longer taking directions from the political leadership of the anti-independence movement. "We are living in a chaotic and anarchistic situation," said Francisco Lopes da Cruz, who serves as Jakarta's at-large ambassador on East Timor issues. He acknowledged that his ability to influence the militias was waning.

"If civil war starts here, no one of us here will be safe," he said.

On the issue of ratifying the result, the U.N. special representative for East Timor, Jamsheed Marker, said, "It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse whatever the result of the popular consultation," as the referendum is called.

But later in the week, the chief Foreign Ministry spokesman on Timor, Dini Djalal, said it would be the parliament, not Habibie's government, that would have the ultimate say. "The government will propose -- not decide -- to the [parliament] for confirmation of the results," Djalal said. "[Since] it was the [parliament] that decided on East Timor's incorporation into Indonesia, it must be the [parliament] that must decide on East Timor's partition from Indonesia." He said the assembly would likely decide next month.

EAST TIMOR

The people of East Timor voted Monday for independence, but in the week since the balloting, violence by anti-independence militias has increased. Here is a look at the territory:

History

Portugal formally took over East Timor in 1859 in a treaty with the Netherlands.

The overthrow of Lisbon's right-wing dictatorship in 1974 led to East Timor's sudden decolonialization, and civil war broke out between pro -- and anti -- Marxist groups.

Fearing a Cuba on its doorstep, Indonesia invaded the area in 1975 and annexed it the next year. Independence activism continued. An estimated 200,000 Timorese have died since 1975 during Indonesia's brutal occupation.

East Timor got worldwide attention in 1991, when Indonesian troops opened fire on mourners at a funeral for an indepen-dence supporter in Dili, killing up to 200 people.

When the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Dili's Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo and exiled resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta, the cause of independence received a strong boost.

After Indonesian President Suharto was forced from office in 1998, his successor, B.J. Habibie, opened the way for the U.N.-sponsored independence referendum.

Land

About the size of Connecticut, 5,763 square miles. East Timor occupies about half of the island of Timor.

People

800,000; most are Roman Catholic.

Illiteracy rate: 35%

Economy

Gross domestic product: $113 million; government spending accounted for half of GDP.

Coffee is the most important export crop.

Annual income: Less than $300 per person.

SOURCES: Staff reports, Reuters, Los Angeles Times

THE WASHINGTON POST