The commander of British forces in East Timor reassured thousands of refugees hiding in hills here that it is safe to return home to Dili, the devastated capital. But he had a different message for pro-independence guerrillas, telling them to stay put for now.

Brig. David Richards commended the guerrillas, known as Falintil, for showing restraint and remaining mostly in their assigned camps even as Indonesia's departing troops and their militia proxies embarked on a campaign of killing and arson following the announcement of East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence 3 1/2 weeks ago.

"They've been terribly sensible," Richards said, after meeting with Falintil commanders here. "And as a result, they haven't provoked TNI [Indonesian military] aggression against them." The military and the militias want East Timor to remain part of Indonesia and vehemently oppose its independence. The job of the Australian-led multinational force, of which the British are a part, is to restore order.

Richards described his session with the independence fighters as "straight talk, soldier to soldier." The Dare area is in Britain's area of control.

But as the intervention force, known as Interfet, consolidates its hold on the capital and continues slowly fanning out into the countryside--entering the town of Liquica on Monday--the future role of the Falintil guerrillas remains unclear. And there are seeds of a potential conflict, with Falintil seeing itself as the "people's army" and providing the future security force for East Timor, and the peacekeeping force preferring to see all factions disarmed and the eventual establishment of a territorial police force.

There were hints today of the differences at a ceremony that officially welcomed back to Dili thousands of refugees who had been hiding in the hills. Asked what role the pro-independence guerrillas would play in East Timor's future security, Richards said, "It's being worked on."

He added, "They are saying as Interfet moves out, and we are able to provide the level of security required, they will lay down their arms."

But Leandro Isaac, the spokesman for the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the umbrella group that includes Falintil as its armed wing, replied to the same question: "Falintil has been the symbol of East Timorese resistance and liberation for the last 24 years" since Indonesia's invasion in 1975. "Falintil's future is ensured by the future of East Timor."

"Regarding disarmament, it will depend on future developments," Isaac said. "If we still need Falintil to be our armed wing, we will have it."

The future role of Falintil, with about 1,000 armed fighters, is one of the trickiest questions facing the United Nations as it looks toward rebuilding this shattered territory and shepherding it to independence. The world body organized last month's referendum and approved the dispatch of the multinational peacekeeping force. How Falintil's role is resolved could determine East Timor's prospects for reconciliation, and for the new nation's relationship with Indonesia.

After the results of the referendum were announced and violence erupted, Indonesian troops repeatedly tried to lure the Falintil guerrillas from their mountain camps. But for the most part, the guerrillas remain confined to their bases, never allowing the Indonesian government to convincingly depict the fighting as a civil war between rival Timorese factions.

Nine days after the arrival of the first foreign troops--Australian soldiers and British Gurkhas--Richards told the resistance council leaders in a meeting here: "Falintil should not go there now and set up offices. But for the average citizen, it's as safe as it's ever going to be." For his part, Isaac promised that the independence forces would cooperate fully with the peacekeeping troops.

The displaced people did start returning--by foot, with their belongings balanced on their heads; by motorcycle; and aboard trucks provided by the United Nations and the peacekeeping troops.

In a city with no water and no food markets, East Timorese will need aid for a long time, and their return to the city makes the humanitarian effort, and the continued deployment of foreign troops, more difficult. But officials said it is important to have people return to Dili, mainly as a psychological boost and a statement that the razed city is once again livable.

"It's their home," said Maj. Alistair Mack, in charge of humanitarian efforts for the British military. "So I'd rather have people go back and look at their homes and salvage what is left."

CAPTION: Villagers who support independence for East Timor take up traditional weapons to guard the road past their homes, about 25 miles east of Dili.