Indonesian soldiers and their allied militias in East Timor pursued today what diplomats and others described as a "scorched-earth" policy in the provincial capital, blowing up bridges, looting abandoned houses, setting fire to telecommunications facilities, hotels, the radio station and other sites, and leaving the city a smoldering ruin.

International patience with the Jakarta government appeared to be wearing thin as Indonesian officials rejected calls for armed peacekeepers in the troubled territory. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright warned of "very serious effects within the international community" for Indonesia if it fails to end the crisis.

In a reflection of the chaos in Dili, the East Timorese capital, the United Nations first announced the withdrawal of its 206 remaining staff members from its besieged headquarters compound there, then postponed the move for 24 hours and said a skeleton staff is likely to remain.

In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan voiced his concern for about 2,000 East Timorese who have taken refuge in the compound and said a residual U.N. presence would help protect them. "The place is in chaos, and they need to be able to get out," he said.

Since East Timor voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 30 to become an independent state, the Indonesian army and police force -- now marauding openly alongside anti-independence militia gangs -- seem to have adopted a strategy of letting East Timor secede, but only after emptying the province of its population, killing off its political leadership and destroying its basic infrastructure.

In Dili today, one witness described "a scene of utter destruction," and some compared the pillage to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas' takeover of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, invaded the predominantly Catholic former Portuguese colony in 1975 and annexed it a year later, beginning an often brutal occupation that is believed to have cost 200,000 lives.

President B.J. Habibie took a major political risk earlier this year by announcing a referendum in the tiny territory, allowing East Timorese to choose between autonomous status within Indonesia or independence. Elements within the Indonesian military organized and supported anti-independence militias that conducted a campaign of intimidation and terror before the referendum and have intensified it since the results were announced -- overwhelmingly against remaining part of Indonesia.

"It's scorched earth; it's ethnic cleansing," U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said today in a telephone interview from his new base in Darwin, Australia. "Downtown [Dili] has been destroyed. All the commercial areas have been burnt out, looted. . . . It's very organized. The whole thing was organized from start to finish."

At the U.N. compound in Dili, water and food were in short supply, and a U.N. convoy that had left the headquarters to retrieve water from a warehouse turned back when it was attacked by militiamen with M-16 assault rifles, machetes and clubs. Indonesian soldiers stood by as thugs dragged a driver out of a truck and threatened to kill him, according to a U.N. spokesman in New York. All the windows in the vehicles were smashed. "The situation . . . has become untenable," Wimhurst said, speaking before Annan's statement in New York.

Referring to the refugees at the U.N. complex in Dili, Annan said: "I am taking measures to see if we can thin out rather than withdraw completely, so that we can maintain our premises on the understanding that the military around the building will continue to provide protection."

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, asserting that Dili now resembles Phnom Penh of 24 years ago, said, "There are almost no local people around at all."

A Western diplomat here in Jakarta, who was in Dili until Monday and still receives regular reports from there, said, "They're definitely doing a scorched-earth policy, destroying all the assets." The goal, he said, appears to be "destroy everything, leave [the East Timorese] with nothing, and then give [them] independence."

The campaign of destruction has occurred despite -- or perhaps because of -- the imposition of martial law in East Timor Tuesday and the introduction of thousands of fresh Indonesian combat troops. Diplomats and others had hoped the new troops might begin to rein in their militia surrogates and restore some semblance of security; instead, they seem to have openly joined in wreaking devastation. "The militia and military together are just burning and looting," said a Western diplomat.

There were also more reports, from diplomats in Jakarta as well as anti-Indonesian East Timorese leaders here, of mass killings in East Timor, but these could not be independently confirmed; communications links to the province, with the exception of satellite telephones, have been shut down. Several student leaders in Dili are feared dead, and there is concern for priests who had been sheltering refugees in the southwestern town of Suai.

In Jakarta, Gen. Wiranto, the armed forces chief, named a new commander for East Timor to implement martial law and "create a safe atmosphere." He is Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, who had been operations assistant to the army chief of staff.

As tension over East Timor heightened, there were no signs that Jakarta would budge on its resistance to the intervention of armed international peacekeepers. A high-level U.N. Security Council delegation met with Foreign Minister Ali Alatas on the crisis but reported little progress. Alatas took a combative tone in a television interview, saying "we share the deep concern" over the violence in East Timor, but he accused the international community of trying to pressure Indonesia on the issue.

"Why should we be the subject of so much abuse, so much accusations, so much pressuring?" Alatas said. "Don't hector us. Don't pressure us. Don't give us ultimatums, like within 48 hours you shall do this or that." He was apparently referring to Annan's statement Tuesday that Jakarta had 48 hours to quell the violence in East Timor or the Security Council would be forced to consider other options.

But signs of international impatience were apparent despite the reluctance of world powers even to consider deploying armed peacekeepers while Indonesia resists. In Auckland, New Zealand, where foreign ministers have gathered for an Asia-Pacific economic conference, Albright warned of repercussions for Indonesia from the current crisis.

"We have a number of ways that the international community can deal with that and [make] clear to them that they will suffer," Albright said. There have been mounting calls for the use of economic leverage against Indonesia, including withholding the next installment of a $43 billion international aid package until Jakarta ends the campaign of terror in East Timor and consents to armed peacekeepers.

Special correspondent Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.