Gaddafi loyalists launched an attack on Libya’s largest oil refinery on Monday, leaving 15 people dead, according to officials in Benghazi, amid fears of a guerrilla campaign of sabotage.
Witnesses said a convoy of pickups drove out of the desert at 9am and attacked the facility close to Ras Lanuf, about 380 from Tripoli, on the approach to the regime stronghold of Sirte.
Abdalil Salah, an official in the interim oil ministry, said it was an attempt to disrupt the plant and prevent efforts to resume oil production.
“They came out of the desert from the south and attacked the main gate from a distance with rockets,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“We still don’t know much more but it was obviously a deliberate attempt to disrupt operations at a facility that can export 6-700,000 barrels of oil a day.” Much of Libya’s interior remains beyond the reach of former rebels, who took control of Tripoli last month.
With Colonel Gaddafi and senior regime figures still at large, that raises the spectre of a long-running guerrilla campaign of hit and run attacks.
The interim prime minister said on Sunday that facilities in areas controlled by the National Transitional Council (NTC) had begun producing oil, after being all but halted throughout the war.
Facilities at Ras Lanuf are not yet functional, but a 60-strong work force is at the site making repairs to damage from more than six months of conflict.
Ramadan Abdel Qader, a refinery worker who had been shot in the foot, said gunmen had arrived in as many as trucks.
“We heard firing and shelling at around 9 in the morning from Gaddafi loyalists,” he said.
15 bodies were taken to the local hospital.
The oil town of Ras Lanuf was taken by anti-Gaddafi forces three weeks ago as they advanced towards Sirte.
However, much of the town – and neighbouring Bin Jawad – remain empty, deserted by Gaddafi sympathisers.
Many are living in the desert to the south, where they have been blamed for a series of skirmishes and night raids on NTC forces in the past week.
Meanwhile China on Monday formally recognised the National Transitional Council.
Beijing earlier this month acknowledged the former rebels as “significant” but had remained the only member of the United Nations Security Council not to give formal recognition after Tripoli fell to anti-Gaddafi forces three weeks ago.