BENGHAZI, Libya — Backers of deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi staged a daring guerrilla-style raid Monday on the oil refinery at Ras Lanouf, killing 17 rebel soldiers in the latest military setback for a movement that's struggling to consolidate its power nearly three weeks after it surprised the world with a dramatic takeover of Tripoli.
Since ousting Gadhafi from the capital, however, the rebel National Transitional Council has been unable to eliminate loyalist pockets in key parts of the country.
The rebels on Saturday broke off their assault on Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, after predicting they would seize the city of 70,000 before the end of the weekend. A promised assault on Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, which the rebels had vowed to take over by the end of the week, has been postponed.
Plans for the council's leadership to relocate from Benghazi to Tripoli also have been delayed until the military situation is settled.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Meanwhile, the new government has been unable to stop top aides to Gadhafi from fleeing to neighboring Niger by crossing the desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles. It also has been unable to convince Niger to return them or the gold, cash and other government property they are said to have stolen. More than 30 people in Gadhafi's inner circle have fled to Niger, the latest arrival being his son, Saadi, on Sunday.
The council's military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, has blamed the rebels' failure to vanquish the remnants of Gadhafi's forces on the inhumane tactics he says the pro-Gadhafi forces are using. He said in Bani Walid the loyalists have arrayed Grad rockets and mortars on buildings filled with civilians, forcing the rebels to break off their attack. Other council spokesmen have cited similar tactics in Sirte, where they say the loyalists are using captured prisoners as human shields.
But Bani acknowledged that the loyalist attack on Ras Lanouf had revealed rebel weaknesses, while a Western diplomat said the possibility of hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on oil facilities, while not shaking the rebel council's hold on the country, would crimp the new authorities' ability to carry out major economic and political reforms.
"They're going to have to get control over those three major towns," the diplomat said, referring to Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha, a military garrison town deep in Libya's southern desert that also remains outside rebel control. "Sirte is going to take quite a while."
The diplomat could not be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The only good news for the rebels from the Ras Lanouf attack, which took place just two days after the interim government announced it was about to resume oil production, was that the refinery itself wasn't damaged.
The attackers arrived at Ras Lanouf, which lies on Libya's main east-west highway on the Mediterranean coast about 125 miles east of Sirte, by crossing the desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles, waving flags of the rebel forces, Bani said.
They drove up to the main gate of the refinery and were welcomed by its defenders, thanks to the ruse, Bani said. Then they opened fire with 23mm anti-aircraft guns, AK-47 assault rifles and 14.5mm guns.
The attackers captured five rebel fighters and executed four of them as they departed the scene, Bani said, quoting the fifth fighter, who was shot and feigned death but was able to hear the order given to execute his comrades. "Kill them," the defending fighter quoted the loyalist commander as telling his troops.
Reuters reported that 15 defenders were killed in the assault, and two of the wounded died later in hospital. A number of attackers were killed and wounded, according to Bani, but the number was not known, he said, because the loyalists recovered the bodies and drove back into the desert.
Bani said the loyalist attack had been launched from Sirte — a reminder of the danger to rebel forces of a large enclave of Gadhafi loyalists that straddles the coastal highway halfway between the rebel's de facto capital at Benghazi and the country's capital at Tripoli.
Late last week, Gadhafi, in a speech broadcast on the local FM radio station in Sirte, asked his supporters to mobilize 1,000 vehicles and join in an attack on Brega, another major oil facility on the coastal highway. That attack did not materialize, but the attack on Ras Lanouf, which involved no more than a dozen vehicles, according to the Reuters news service, suggests similar attacks against oil facilities between Sirte and Benghazi are possible.
Bani said rebel leaders were furious about the attack and were expected to revise both rebel tactics and personnel in its wake.
"Many things will be changed," he said — including the commander of the rebel forces at Ras Lanouf who, Bani said, had been "caught with his pants down," defending the approaches to the refinery from the road and the sea, but not from the desert.
Bani predicted that the rebels would now draw up new defense plans for the country's oil facilities and would lay new plans for military operations in and around Sirte.
Rebel military abilities have long been questioned. Most of the rebel force has little professional military experience, and the rebels in the east have had a mixed record of military accomplishment. While the eastern rebels now hold key oil locations such as Brega and Ras Lanouf, those places were seized only after rebels in the west had taken control of Tripoli.
The rebel military leadership also has been the subject of internal division. On July 28, the rebel's military commander, former Gadhafi interior minister Abdul-Fattah Younis, was killed, apparently by fellow rebels. The rebel assault on Tripoli began three weeks later.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.