UNITED NATIONS (AP) _ Indonesia's foreign minister denied Monday that the government had approved a ballot on autonomy for East Timor, saying Jakarta wants to consult the Timorese but fears a vote could provoke civil war.

Ali Alatas disputed comments by his Portuguese counterpart, Jaime Gama, who said earlier Monday that Indonesia had agreed to a U.N.-sponsored ballot over the status of the former Portuguese colony.

``We are still trying to find a way in which we can consult the views of the East Timorese short of a referendum,'' Alatas said as he arrived at the United Nations for a final round of U.N.-sponsored talks on the future of the territory.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975 and annexed it in January 1976, but the United Nations and Portugal do not recognize Indonesia's claim.

Two weeks ago, Indonesia made a surprise offer, saying it would consider independence for East Timor if a majority of the territory's people rejected autonomy. However, Indonesia has consistently ruled out a referendum.

The Portuguese and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan say any agreement must be approved by the East Timorese people.

Indonesia has asked U.N. envoy Jamsheed Marker, who has been working for nearly two years to break the long-standing deadlock on East Timor's status, to help Jakarta devise a method ``to determine whether the East Timorese have accepted or rejected our wide-ranging autonomy plan,'' Alatas said.

``And voting is out,'' he said.

However, he reiterated that if the East Timorese people reject autonomy in some kind of a consultation process, Indonesia will make a sharp break with the former Portuguese colony _ ``a parting of the ways.''

At a news conference Monday night wrapping up this round of talks, Marker announced that the two foreign ministers had cleared up almost all the disputed points in the autonomy agreement and said both sides would meet again in New York on March 9-10 to finalize the accord. But the focus at the news conference remained how Indonesia would assess the Timorese people's views on the accord.

Alatas reiterated that Indonesia was open to anything but a referendum. Gama said he saw no other way to evaluate Timorese sentiment.

Marker said the United Nations would look at ways to consult the Timorese, but stressed ``there are no shortcuts to democracy.''

East Timorese independence leader and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta also said that a vote was the only way to ascertain the feelings of the people of East Timor, and said such a vote would be decisively defeated in favor of independence.

Earlier Monday, Gama said in an interview that if the Timorese voted ``no'' to autonomy that Indonesia had agreed to return East Timor to its 1976 status as a nongoverning territory of Portugal.

The United Nations would then take responsibility for the decolonization with Portugal as the administering power, he said, and a body would be created ``to organize a smooth transition to independence.''

While U.N.-sponsored talks have been under way in New York, there have been widespread reports from East Timor that the armed forces have been handing out weapons to some civilian recruits.

Annan said Sunday that Indonesian representatives had given assurances they were not arming factions in East Timor.

Tensions between rival groups in East Timor have risen recently since the Indonesian government made the offer to consider independence. Separatist rebels have been active ever since the Indonesian invasion.