President Clinton yesterday authorized about 200 U.S. military personnel to assist an Australian-led multinational force that will try to restore order in East Timor, while the United Nations prepared an emergency airdrop of food rations to thousands of civilians who have sought refuge in remote woodlands.

"I have decided to contribute to the force in a limited but essential way, including communications and logistical aid, intelligence, airlifts of personnel and material, and coordination of the humanitarian response to the tragedy," Clinton said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Clinton said about half of the U.S. personnel would serve on the ground in East Timor. The rest will be posted either in Darwin, Australia, which will serve as a staging area for the force, or on ships offshore. Initially, the U.S. role will be to help transport troops and equipment from other nations to Australia, Pentagon officials said.

Operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate, the force is expected to total some 7,500 troops, with Australia providing about half the total, Clinton said. Portugal, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and other Asian and European nations have also pledged contributions.

At the Pentagon, Navy Vice Adm. Scott Fry told reporters that the U.S. forces would be ready to move in 48 hours and that the administration had agreed to consider requests by Australia for additional personnel or equipment.

The largest and most sensitive U.S. contribution will be an intelligence team of about 50 people who will gather and analyze information about the Indonesian military and the pro-Indonesian militias that began a rampage after losing an Aug. 30 referendum on independence for the former Portuguese colony. The U.S. team will operate a Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance aircraft based in Darwin, and in East Timor it will run a secure communications center that will connect the peacekeeping force with intelligence agencies from contributing nations, according to a senior Pentagon official.

"Their job will be to take intelligence from electronic intercepts, from human sources, from various intelligence organizations, from wherever it comes from, and bring it together in a manner that assists the day-to-day operations of the multinational force," the official said.

To hold down the size of the U.S. force, Australian troops will provide protection for U.S. personnel, and to further reduce risks, U.S. forces will not undertake the kind of patrol duties that routinely would expose them to danger, Pentagon officials said.

As the multinational force assembled in Australia for a landing in East Timor early next week, the United Nations made plans yesterday to address the humanitarian crisis that developed after the pro-Indonesian militias burned and looted much of the capital city, Dili, and drove hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes.

The Indonesian military authorized the World Food Program to make a single airdrop of 15,000 ration packages today but will not let the relief agency undertake massive food distribution.

The military's permission for one delivery is "an important gesture but we would clearly wish the Indonesian government would be more forthcoming in letting us reach 150,000 people we believe to be the most vulnerable," said Trevor Rowe, spokesman for the World Food Program.

Rowe said the United Nations is expecting a shipment of more than 300,000 ration packages to arrive in Darwin from the United States today. But it will languish in a warehouse, he said, unless the Indonesians allow the agency to begin regular food drops throughout East Timor.

Participating in the multinational force, Clinton said, "is in America's interest for several reasons."

Noting that Indonesia is the fourth-most populous nation in the world and the largest predominately Muslim nation, Clinton said, "all Asians and Americans have an interest in a stable, democratic, prosperous Indonesia." In addition, he said, the violence that erupted following the U.N.-sponsored referendum "is abhorrent to all of us who care about human dignity and democracy."