LUANDA, Angola -- Jonas Savimbi, the U.S.-backed rebel leader who is battling to become Angola's next president, has confirmed that execution-style murders -- including the killing of children -- were carried out last year at his headquarters in the bush.
Rumors of the brutalities have been troubling relations between Washington and Mr. Savimbi's UNITA rebels, which the United States supported with millions of dollars when Angola was a focal point of the Cold War-era struggle between the Soviet-supported government and UNITA.
A cease-fire was signed in May; elections are scheduled for Sept. 29.
In his first interview on the subject of human rights abuses in his UNITA movement, Mr. Savimbi confirmed the murders of two high-ranking UNITA officials and two young sons of one of those officials.
But the rebel leader placed full blame for the abuses on his former second-in-command, a longtime guerrilla fighter who defected from UNITA last month and who is now being described by the movement as "cruel, intolerant . . . and ignorant of basic human rights."
Speaking to Western reporters summoned here Sunday, Mr. Savimbi denied that he ordered the killings or even knew of them until recently. In his absence, he said, rebel commander Miguel N'zau Puna was in charge of UNITA's bush camp in southern Angola, Jamba.
"Jamba was entirely in the hands of Puna," he said. "Every time I left Jamba, who was in control? Puna. Nobody else."
Mr. Savimbi had been traveling and operating mainly from Luanda, the Angolan capital, since September in preparation for the country's first-ever national elections. His campaign has been shaken by the revelations of human rights abuses, and his reputation with U.S. officials as a "freedom fighter" has been seriously tarnished.
Mr. Savimbi said the movement was "shocked" about the killings and "shocked" over the defections of General Puna and another leading UNITA figure who have made statements linking Mr. Savimbi to the murders.
Although Mr. Savimbi spoke of the murders for the first time publicly in an extraordinary news conference here, the brutality has been the subject of rumors and speculation for months. It also was the first unequivocal statement that the two men -- Tito Chingunji and Wilson dos Santos -- are dead and were, in fact, killed at UNITA headquarters by UNITA authorities.
Mr. Chingunji, 37, was well-known and well-liked in Washington, where he was UNITA's chief representative during the mid-1980s. He had not been seen or heard from for months. Mr. dos Santos, 47, had represented UNITA in Belgium and Portugal. Both men were serving in positions in Jamba at the time of their disappearance.
The U.S. government, UNITA's major backer in its long guerrilla war against Angola's Marxist government, had called on the rebel leader to provide a full explanation of what happened to Mr. Chingunji and Mr. dos Santos.
A U.S. official in Washington said Mr. Savimbi's latest account was just one of a number of explanations given by UNITA. "We're in the process of trying to assess the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these two people and their families," he said.
The United States is trying to learn when the killings took place and who was in charge of Jamba at the time. An analysis of UNITA's command structure also is needed, he said. The official noted that both men appeared to have been either in custody at Jamba or given little freedom of movement for some time before they were killed.
But Mr. Savimbi left many questions unanswered about how and why the men were killed, why Mr. Chingunji's children also were murdered, and how he as the leader of a tightly controlled movement could have failed to know about the incidents for months as he maintained. He said a commission of inquiry had been appointed and would answer those questions.
Western sources familiar with the tightly disciplined structure of UNITA and Mr. Savimbi's strong leadership say they find it difficult to believe such killings could have taken place without his knowledge or consent.
But the charismatic rebel leader said reports that he had an iron gripon the organization were exaggerated. "The argument being spread, that nothing happens in UNITA without Savimbi knowing, it's not possible," he said. "You cannot know everything."
He said that he relied on lieutenants who he trusted and that "Puna was one of the men who was trusted," although he had been reprimanded previously for brutality against subordinates.
Mr. Savimbi did not explain why he allowed a man who had committed previous acts of brutality complete control of his Jamba office, but he said General Puna's alleged brutality had been tolerated in the past because acts that were not acceptable in peacetime had to be tolerated during a war.
In his account of the murders, Mr. Savimbi said that Mr. Chingunji and Mr. dos Santos were apparently killed in November but that he became aware of the murders only last month when he returned to Jamba.