Chileans rejected President Augusto Pinochet's bid to extend his 15-year rule in a referendum that cleared the way for democratic elections. The military government conceded defeat Thursday.

The entire 16-member Cabinet submitted their resignations early Thursday, Labor Minister Alfonso Marquez de la Plata told reporters. He also said the assistant ministry officials resigned. He gave no further details.Gen. Pinochet, the army commander, gave no statement on the results of Wednesday's balloting, and it was not known whether he would accept the resignations or shuffle his Cabinet.

Thousands of celebrating students marched through Santiago Thursday, and people in downtown buildings showered streets with confetti.

With 99.6 percent of the vote counted, 54.7 percent rejected Pinochet and 43 percent voted for him in the "yes" or "no" referendum, the Interior Ministry said at midday.

More than 7.2 million of Chile's 7.4 million registered voters cast the first presidential ballots in 18 years, the ministry said. Some waited in lines up to a mile long.

"The country delivered its mandate (and is) on the way to a transition to an authentic democracy," Patricio Aylwin, leader of a 16-party opposition coalition, told cheering supporters Thursday.

Under the constitution, Pinochet, who seized power in a bloody 1973 coup, remains in power until 1990. If he had won the referendum, he would have served until 1997.

Interior Minister Sergio Fernandez pledged to respect the results of Wednesday's balloting but also to enforce the 1980 constitution, which the political opposition wants changed.

Police reported few incidents of violence, and traffic was normal later in the morning.

Leaders of a 16-party opposition coalition promised to pursue national unity as they seek a speedy return to democratic government.

Fernandez; Aylwin, president of the centrist Christian Democratic Party; and Roman Catholic Cardinal Francisco Fresno hailed the peaceful reaction a sign of Chileans' maturity and civic responsibility. Patricio Hales, Communist Party spokesman, said the party took measures to keep people quiet and prevent disorder.

Fernandez formally conceded defeat early Thursday after an emergency meeting with Pinochet, the four-man military junta that serves as a legislature, and the 15-member Cabinet.

"We abide by the results already known to the people," Fernandez said, reading from a text.

His expression grave, he added that the government "reiterates its unbreakable resolve to comply with, and have others comply with, the constitution and laws."

The opposition has said it will pursue negotiations with the armed forces on changing the constitution, pushed through by Pinochet in 1980.

The document lays out a schedule for a return to democracy, including a special provision for Wednesday's referendum. In case of a "no" majority, it called for competitive presidential elections to be held in December 1989, with the winner assuming power in March 1990.

Pinochet remains leader until then.

The constitution also calls for elections in 1990 for a congress, disbanded when Pinochet seized power in a September 1973 coup that ousted President Salvador Allende, a Marxist who won the last presidential election in 1970.

Opposition leaders want the presidential ballot moved up.