The concrete cistern in the back of the house of an independence leader contains evidence of the horror of East Timor: a body lies rotting in the well.

Neighbors say there may be more bodies underneath, and the blood splattered on the floors of the house attests to past gruesome events.

But there is no one to perform the grim forensic excavation of the fetid well, and like so many other reports of multiple killings in East Timor, the number of victims in this one has yet to be established.

Journalists and outside observers have not reached large portions of East Timor beyond the capital, Dili. But in Dili, some reports of mass killings and large-scale atrocities committed by anti-independence militias and their Indonesian military backers cannot be confirmed or appear to have been exaggerated.

"Where are all the mass graves?" wondered Brig. David Richards, a veteran officer in the multinational peacekeeping force that arrived here this week to subdue the violence. "In Sierra Leone there were bodies all over the place and there were recent graves. I haven't seen that here."

The situation is "still a little hazy and sketchy, but we cannot confirm reports of mass killings," said Symeon Antoulas, a local representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The extent of killings is one of the major mysteries confronting the peacekeepers. Human rights groups and diplomats said that thousands of people may have been killed since the results of a Sept. 4 referendum were announced indicating overwhelming support for East Timor's independence from Indonesia. Indonesian military leader Gen. Wiranto played down the reports of large-scale abuses, claiming that fewer than 100 people had died.

In interviews over the past four days, Dili residents and refugees who were quick to assert that atrocities were committed could not provide specific evidence. A search of burned-out buildings where mass killings supposedly took place yielded no charred bones or bodies.

Certainly, killings occurred. Some massacres allegedly took place in the still-unreachable countryside where the anti-independence militias were particularly strong. Several outside sources and the Vatican have described an incident in Suai, a western area of East Timor, in which three priests were gunned down and nearly 100 refugees huddled in a church were slaughtered.

But other reports seem unfounded. For example, the Foundation for Human Rights and Justice reported that 25 people were killed when a building of the Catholic diocese in Dili was burned. The building, like hundreds of others here, was gutted by fire, but an inspection today found no evidence of death.

The same group reported a massacre at the residence of Bishop Carlos Belo in Dili. His house also was burned, but four nuns who are living in the bishop's yard said there was no massacre and that the militia has killed one man there since the referendum.

Church-related organizations have reported that the clergy was targeted and that as many as nine priests were killed in the recent violence. The clergy who remained in Dili could confirm that four priests in East Timor died--the three in Suai and one in Dili.

Inspections based on other reports of mass murders at the central police station, the Tropical Hotel, the Tourismo Hotel and the convent of the Canosian Sisters in Dili also yielded no evidence--no blood, no bones, no knowledge of the events by the few neighbors who have returned.

Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the multinational force, said his soldiers--now numbering about 3,000, with 4,500 expected--cannot pursue the reports of mass killings.

"We will need investigative resources well beyond the capacity of our forces" to determine if mass killings occurred, he said today.

Some incidents have, however, been documented. On April 17, months before the referendum and before reporters were forced by the violence to leave East Timor, militiamen attacked the home of independence leader Manual Carascalo and killed his son and 12 to 20 others. The attack was widely reported and immediately verified by journalists.

Today, it was behind his home that the body was discovered in the cistern. The only body evident when looking down the well appears to have been a much more recent death than those at the house in April.