Libya’s rebel chief pleaded for unity yesterday after a high-profile murder within the ranks, as the insurgents said they captured a town south of Tripoli and Nato pummelled a key oil town.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who heads the de facto government of east Libya, issued the plea for unity following the July 28 assassination of General Abdel Fatah Yunis, a long-time ally of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi before his defection.

“I would like to send a message to all Libyans in the liberated areas: we need to focus all our resources on the battle for freedom,” he said in a statement urging rebels to keep battling to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

“We need to unite now for a bigger cause,” he said.

Abdel Jalil spoke a day after Nato warplanes blasted the area around the eastern oil hub of Brega.

Of 43 strike missions carried out by Nato last Friday, the alliance reported 38 hits on loyalist targets around the town. Among the targets reportedly hit were two tanks and 20 other armoured vehicles.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, rebel commanders said their fighters captured Bir Ghanam, 80 kilometres south of the Libyan capital, yesterday. An AFP correspondent, although he did not visit Bir Ghanam itself, was with the several hundred fighters as they advanced north on a road strewn with burned-out vehicles of regime forces, some with bodies of soldiers inside.

Most of the rebels in Bir Ghanam’s capture were members of a ‘Tripoli Battalion’ made up of volunteers from the capital and other coastal towns who received military training in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli.

However, residents of a town 100 kilometres from the capital, who took up arms against the regime, were said to be under siege.

A representative from Al-Qusbat’s rebel military committee told AFP the town was surrounded by Gaddafi loyalists and that fears were growing of a bloodbath.

“All roads going to Al-Qusbat are blocked by Gaddafi’s forces. They cut electricity and communications since yesterday,” Khamis Nuri el-Kasseh said from the rebel capital of Benghazi after contacting the town by satellite phone.

“Gaddafi’s forces are not yet in control of the town, but we expect it will be bloody today,” he said.

Al-Qusbat is cut off from other rebel positions in western Libya, with 70 kilometres separating it from the nearest positions at Zliten to the east.

Last month’s murder of Yunis as he returned to Benghazi under arrest presented Abdel Jalil’s lawyer-dominated National Transitional Council with a formidable political challenge.

The NTC has come under fire for its role in events leading to the killing and its handling of the aftermath.

Although details are still under investigation, it is known that an arrest warrant was signed by senior NTC member Ali Essawy, raising allegations that the NTC unknowingly helped facilitate his murder.

The council has faced angry and sometimes violent protests from Yunis’s tribe, as well as demands for reform from groups that were at the forefront of the February 17 outbreak of the armed revolt.

In response, Abdel Jalil insisted a criminal investigation was under way and would yield prompt results.

“Soon the investigation will reveal the offender and the details of the incident,” he said, and also promised that an internal investigation into the NTC’s handling of the crisis would not flinch from apportioning blame.

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