First as a guerrilla leader and later as a political prisoner, Xanana Gusmao led East Timor's independence fight for 18 years. Now that East Timor has become the world's newest nation, Gusmao has returned from seven years in exile as a larger-than-life hero, a charismatic and articulate man whom many East Timorese see as their first president.

But Gusmao is being coy. Asked at a news conference today if he wants to lead this country after what is expected to be two or three years of United Nations control, he said "it will take time" to decide.

What is clear, though, is that Gusmao wields enormous political power. He and his lieutenants are in a position to significantly influence the rebuilding of East Timor, which was ravaged by militias loyal to Indonesia after residents voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 30 to secede. The United Nations, whose Security Council could decide as early as Monday to assume full administrative responsibility for East Timor, has had extensive negotiations with Gusmao about the scope and direction of its operations.

"There's almost nothing in the planning process that hasn't been bounced over to his staff," said a U.N. official.

Gusmao, 53, is the president of the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the once-outlawed political arm of the Falintil rebel group, which he headed from 1981 until his capture by the Indonesian army in 1992. He was sentenced to life in prison, but was released after the independence vote.

Born Jose Alexandre Gusmao, he adopted the nom de guerre Xanana after joining Falintil in 1975, when Portugal decided to jettison its colonies. A former journalist, he fled to the mountains after Indonesia invaded later that year. Within a few years, Gusmao rose to become Falintil's top commander.

After he was captured in 1992, he used his trial as a forum to push for a vote on East Timor's independence, saying at one point, "Whoever is afraid of the referendum is afraid of the truth."

Since his release from prison, Gusmao has been East Timor's de facto head of state. He traveled to Washington and other Western capitals last month to build support for a peacekeeping force to quell the militia violence. He even addressed the Australian Parliament.

CNRT officials have been meeting in Darwin, Australia, to plan their involvement in the transition. Gusmao has divulged few details other than to say that "CNRT will be on hand whenever it is needed and we will play a role wherever it becomes necessary."

The group has been discussing issues such as an official language and a currency for the country, a Portuguese colony for 400 years before Indonesia invaded in 1975. Gusmao wants the language to be Portuguese, although most of the population speaks a language called Tetun.

U.N. officials expect the CNRT to create a high-level council that will regularly consult with U.N. administrators. The United Nations also is planning to set up a provisional legislature, perhaps with 40 or 50 members, many of which likely would be from CNRT.

The group already is actively involved in U.N.-led efforts to distribute food and provide other humanitarian assistance. Aid workers frequently ask CNRT leaders to dole out rice and high-protein biscuits, reasoning that the council knows best which enclaves most need the emergency supplies, and because most Indonesian-appointed local government officials have fled to Indonesian-controlled western Timor.

Although he has received a passionate welcome from people here--more than 5,000 showed up with less than two hours' notice to hear him speak on Friday--Gusmao appears to want a low-key public role. "I'm not a savior," he said at today's news conference. "I didn't come to solve all of the problems."

Although he now plays the part of a politician, he appears uncomfortable in the role. He said he is proud to be a member of Falintil, but that he never wanted to be president of the CNRT. And explaining his appearance in a camouflage Falintil uniform, complete with a name patch over the right shirt pocket, he said: "When I was arrested I was a guerrilla fighter. I am coming back as a guerrilla fighter."

Despite the military posture, he said he remains committed to ending the violence that has plagued this territory for generations. After an Australian-led peacekeeping force landed in East Timor last month, Falintil fighters have largely stayed inside their camps. But Gusmao did not commit to disarming Falintil--a condition set down by the peacekeepers. That, he said, "is our business."