JOHANNESBURG -- The time has come to reveal how a former high-ranking official and spokesman for UNITA, the U.S.-backed Angolan rebel movement, predicted he might be slain at the behest of his own leader, Jonas Savimbi.

The man is Pedro "Tito" Chingunji, well-known in Washington and other Western capitals as a determined, effective advocate of the movement, which he enthusiastically portrayed to members of Congress and citizens and church groups in America as a democratic insurgency.

But now, it is certain that Chingunji is dead, killed by followers of Savimbi, who has led the movement, the National Union for the Total Unification of Angola, almost since its founding in 1964 to end Portugal's colonial rule. Chingunji is the best-known of scores of UNITA members killed in bloody leadership purges stretching over more than 15 years. The murders have long been hidden from the West, but the truth about what well-paid publicists continue to portray as a humanitarian movement is emerging.

The story of Chingunji and other victims is important because, with Angola's first-ever democratic elections due in six months -- after nearly 30 years of civil war -- Savimbi hopes to gain ultimate power in the country and be embraced by Western democracies as an African savior.

Grisly tales of UNITA torture, beatings and burnings at the stake have surfaced over the years, but until last week, UNITA always bitterly assailed those making the charges. I, myself, author of a laudatory biography of Savimbi and once a firm believer in him and UNITA, have been publicly denounced for reporting allegations of brutality from UNITA defectors.

But when two of Savimbi's closest confidantes defected recently in fear of their own lives and began recounting horrors from within the ruling circle, the wall of lies truly disintegrated. Last Wednesday, UNITA broke its habit of denial and issued a report admitting that serious abuses -- including the presumed slaying of Chingunji -- had occurred within the movement. The report blamed it all on the two high-level defectors, Miguel N'Zau Puna and Tony Fernandes. The report asserts that Chingunji "unaccountably disappeared."

However, four years ago, Chingunji gave me -- a longtime close friend -- a detailed account of what he concluded was Savimbi's ruthless elimination of anyone he thought a rival. Many of the victims were members of Chingunji's extended family.

It is a terrible irony that Chingunji concluded this even as he was reaching the height of his diplomatic success as a UNITA spokesman and propagandist in America and Western Europe. I, myself, once accepted the heroic image of Savimbi, as my 1986 book, "Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa," makes clear.

Chingunji's ties to UNITA -- like Savimbi's -- were unique. Although multi-tribalist in ideology, UNITA was always dominated by two great clans of Angola's biggest tribe, the Ovimbundu. The clans were the Savimbis -- and the Chingunjis.

Savimbi and his branch of UNITA, trained by the Chinese, fought in the bush. The Chingunji clan organized the clandestine underground and penetrated from within. Tito Chingunji's parents, Jonatao and Violeta Chingunji, who were longtime UNITA activists, raised 10 children. All became UNITA activists; all but one have died in the violence.

Angola has been engulfed in fighting for almost 30 years. When the Portuguese left in 1975, a civil war erupted between the Marxist MPLA regime, backed by Moscow and Fidel Castro; and UNITA, backed by the United States and South Africa. Chingunji's parents were slain in 1979; Savimbi told Tito they had died during an MPLA offensive. At first, Tito accepted this.

Meanwhile, he rose in UNITA ruling circles. By 1983, he was a Politburo member and foreign secretary, ranked No. 3 behind Savimbi and Puna. But that year, he told me later, relatives smuggled startling information out of Angola: His parents had perished at the hands of Savimbi henchmen.

Tito gathered evidence and kept his own counsel. He advised me on my book and played a pivotal role in negotiations that culminated in the December 1988 New York Accords providing for the withdrawal of Cuban and Soviet forces from Angola and the South African Defense Force from neighboring Namibia. In September 1988, Tito phoned me in London and asked me to fly to Washington to talk to him. He said it was a life-or-death matter that could not be discussed by phone.

Mystified but deeply concerned about a man I considered a brother, I flew to Washington. We met at a downtown hotel. He began by saying: "There are things I need to tell you because you are a man who understands African politics and because your family has loved me." I took careful notes as he talked.

Tito said things were more complicated within UNITA than he had ever told me. He went on: "Each time I return to Jamba {Savimbi's bush headquarters} I do not know whether or not I will come out again, or whether or not I will be killed."

"My parents {were} beaten to death on Savimbi's instructions," he said. "I have now confirmed that that is true. My sisters and brothers and their wives and husbands are under arrest and have been severely beaten. One of my sisters, Xila, has been executed."

"My father was a strong character and he never hesitated to criticize Savimbi," said Tito. "He became increasingly disapproving of Savimbi's callous treatment of women. Savimbi took 'wives' from everywhere and everyone, and his children from many women are scattered throughout southeastern Angola.

"For a long time there had been rumors that four of my brothers had been killed on Savimbi's orders," said Tito, but he had not believed them. He had lived through incredible adventures in the bush with Savimbi and genuinely admired him. "Then I learned that my surviving brothers and sisters had been arrested, and they got reports out to me saying that the strongarm men who surround Savimbi had beaten our parents to death."

He said his parents had died after confronting Savimbi with reports of the killings of several sons. Enraged, Savimbi jailed the parents with their surviving children and other relatives. The parents were tortured and beaten to death. (According to an account I was given by a senior UNITA representative still in Europe, the two were run over repeatedly by a truck.)

Despite the gravity of his accusations, Tito insisted out of fear for relatives still in prison that the information remain confidential. He would tell me when I could use it or, if something serious happened, I would know the time had come to make it public.

Tito said he had confronted Savimbi with his findings and the UNITA leader had admitted the killings and repented. Tito said he believed Savimbi was a "changed man." With peace near, the two had reached an understanding to get through the transition to free elections. Tito was also convinced that he was protected by his valuable diplomatic work and his strong religious faith.

In November 1988, Tito and all UNITA representatives abroad were called back to Jamba, ostensibly to confer prior to the signing of accords. Many people warned him not to go.

Tito ignored the advice. He went to Africa -- and never returned.

The first overt sign of trouble came when UNITA announced he had been demoted from his leadership posts. Soon, I was inundated in London with calls from his friends in Europe and America asking me to go to Jamba to find out what had happened. I agreed -- and stepped into one of the most bizarre and sad encounters of my life. On the night of Dec. 21, 1988, I was ushered past guards toting AK-47 assault rifles into a circular conference hut in Jamba. Savimbi was sitting in a big red chair facing 13 pistol-packing members of his Politburo. Chingunji, his face a mask of fear, sat in the middle. We hardly dared look at each other, much less say anything. I said I had come to inquire about Tito on behalf of many other people and because, since the time I worked with him on my book, I had regarded him as a brother.

Savimbi suddenly exploded. His face contorted, he shouted and berated me. "You have come here to insult me! Do you think you can still come to Africa to patronize us, puffing yourself up and saying Tito is your brother and getting him into a lot of trouble?" He raged on and on.

"Our struggle is a big one, bigger than your book! Your book may be thick, but it is a very thin thing in the history of our struggle."

The harangue boomed for more than two hours. In a bizarre moment, Savimbi raised his left hand and said: "I can tell you there is not a spot of blood on my hand! Yes, it is true that Tito's parents were killed, but not by me. And these stories that Tito's brothers were also killed by me are lies . . . . You people are making it impossible for Tito to begin his new job. He is in a state of nervousness each day wondering what new story will be coming to divide him from his brothers."

Savimbi pointed to Chingunji and taunted: "There is your friend Tito. So what do you want to do with him now? Take him to a room where you can discuss alone? Or take him out altogether so that you can be the guarantor of his safety?"

Tito himself interrupted several times, mumbling disjointedly: "You, Fred Bridgland, must know that you and other people are creating big problems for me with these accounts, which are completely untrue . . . . You know yourself that in conversations with me that you have always asserted the brilliance, like a shining star, of Mr. President, who has taught me politically everything I know . . . ." Tito was fighting for survival.

Information Secretary Jorge Valentim leaned across, tapped Tito's knee and said, "These imperialists not only spread all these lies about your family, but they were writing untrue things like 'Tito is the most intelligent man of UNITA, he is the cleverest one,' trying to divide us." Tito, near to tears, nodded agreement.

As the hideous session wound down, Savimbi in mercurial fashion changed mood, apologized if he had insulted me and suggested I embrace each Politburo member. Like an actor in a surreal play, I did so. I was escorted out. As I walked to my hut under millions of stars winking like diamonds in the African sky, I heard the sound of Politburo laughter mocking me. I began writing notes on the encounter.

When I got back to London, I worked with diplomats and human rights groups to save Chingunji. But I never saw him again. Now he, his wife and tiny children are dead, victims of a man of immense potential who has been overcome by megalomania. It is a tragic and disgusting waste of one of Africa's finest young men.

But it's curious: The dead Tito lives on vividly for his many friends in Angola and around the world, while Savimbi, who still lives physically, is now dead. When you are no longer worthy, power just evaporates like morning dew.

Fred Bridgland covers southern Africa for the Sunday Telegraph of London.