Fierce fighting in Bani Walid


Gadafy loyalists attacked an oil refinery killing 15 guards today, in an apparent attempt to disrupt a drive by Libya's new rulers to seize the ousted leader's last bastions and revive the oil-based economy.

A Syrian television station which has aired broadcasts by Muammar Gadafy in the past said it would soon play another message from the fugitive ousted ruler, who has issued regular battle calls to his followers in the three weeks since Tripoli was overrun.

The new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) says that as long as Col Gadafy remains on the run he is capable of attracting followers to a dangerous insurgency.

Witnesses said the assailants damaged the front gate of the refinery, 20km from the coastal town of Ras Lanuf, but not the plant itself, which is not fully operational.

About 60 staff were at the refinery at the time of the attack, according to one of two wounded survivors at a hospital where the dead were also taken. Blood stained the floor.

Refinery worker Ramadan Abdel Qader, who had been shot in the foot, said gunmen in 14 or 15 trucks had come from the direction of the Gadafy-held coastal city of Sirte. "We heard firing and shelling at around nine in the morning from Gadafy loyalists," he said. Staff had been asleep.

The assault occurred only hours after the NTC announced it had resumed some oil production, which had been all but halted since anti-Gadafy protests turned into civil war in March.

The interim council is struggling to assert its control over the entire country and capture a handful of stubbornly-defended Gadafy holdout towns.

NTC forces, who seized Tripoli on August 23rd, said they were meeting fierce resistance on the fourth day of fighting for the Gadafy-held desert town of Bani Walid, 150km southeast of the capital, and were edging towards Sirte.

Libya's economy is almost entirely dependent on oil, and restarting production is crucial to restoring the economy. Interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril said yesterday some oil production had resumed, but would not say where or how much.

Libya holds Africa's largest crude oil reserves and sold about 85 per cent of its exports to Europe under Col Gadafy. Western oil firms, including Italy's Eni and Austria's OMV, are keen to restore production.

Eni's chief executive said his priority was to restart gas exports via a pipeline from Libya to Italy by October or November. Resuming oil output was less urgent. "We are by far the biggest player in Libya, both in oil and in gas, so I came here with the idea of 'back to normal'," Paolo Scaroni said during a visit to Tripoli.

In Bani Walid, fleeing residents reported intense street fighting while Nato warplanes could be heard overhead.

Families trapped there for weeks escaped after Gadafy forces abandoned some checkpoints on the outskirts. Dozens of cars packed with civilians streamed out of the area.

"We are leaving because of the rockets. They are falling near civilian homes," said one resident, Ali Hussain.

The United Nations says it is worried about the fate of civilians trapped inside besieged pro-Gadafy towns.

"Our big concern right now is Sirte, where we are receiving reports that there's no water and no electricity," UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in Dubai.

The NTC has sent extra units to Bani Walid, but some fighters said this only worsened tribal tensions between fighters from other areas and those from the town.

"Our fighters are from all over Libya. There was little control over them yesterday. Today we will control them better," said NTC commander Mohamed el-Fassi. He said five NTC fighters were killed and 14 wounded in yesterday's clashes.

Some NTC combatants said they suspected local fighters of the Warfalla tribe, Libya's largest, of passing tips to Gadafy forces in Bani Walid. "We believe there are traitors among them," said Mohammed el Gahdi, from the coastal city of Khoms.

NTC military spokesman Ahmed Bani told reporters the plan for Bani Walid for now was to wait.

"When our forces entered Bani Walid they found the brigades of Gadafy using citizens as shields," he said, adding that missile launchers had been placed on the roofs of homes, making it impossible for NTC forces or Nato warplanes to strike.

Nato has denied coordinating its air raids with NTC forces but has acknowledged its planes have been bombing targets around Bani Walid, Sirte and other Gadafy strongholds.