A half-dozen gunmen stormed the headquarters of Libya’s national oil company in Tripoli on Monday, setting off explosions, taking hostages and setting fire to the building. An employee who escaped said he believed as many as six people had been killed, and by midday the identity and motive of the attackers had not been determined.
The attack follows a month of escalating violence among rival militias competing for control of Tripoli, the capital, where a United Nations-backed government keeps its headquarters but remains largely powerless. Last week, those clashes killed more than 60 people.
Any attack on the national oil company is significant because petroleum is the lifeblood of the Libyan economy, and competition for control of the country’s vast oil reserves is at the heart of the often violent struggle for power there. Cuts in oil revenue because of the fighting have driven Libya into a severe financial crisis, with the government failing to meet the public payrolls, long lines forming at banks, and inflation soaring.
The employee who escaped, Baha Elddin, said in an interview that six men armed with “machine guns” had fought their way into the building. Three had blown themselves up, he said, and three others had climbed the stairs to the upper floors.
Mr. Elddin said that other local militia fighters had responded to the incursion by besieging the building and that their gunfire may have caused the most casualties. “They started shooting at the assailants inside while the assailants threw grenades down on them from the second floor. I think that most injuries happened because the respondents were shooting in,” Mr. Elddin said in a telephone interview.
Speaking in the early afternoon in Tripoli, he said that the battle had ended with as many as 10 employees injured, and it was unclear whether the three attackers who had climbed the stairs had escaped from the scene. Mr. Elddin described the attackers as dark-skinned, suggesting they could have from ethnic groups native to Libya or from other African countries.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Libya has descended into chaos in the seven years since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The United Nations and Western powers have attempted to set up a government based in Tripoli that might be able to unify the country.
But so far, power in Tripoli and in Western Libya remains divided among rival local or Islamist militias. A would-be strongman, Gen. Khalifa Hifter, dominates the Eastern area around Benghazi, thanks in part to the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had controlled its own beachhead around the coastal city of Sirte until it was driven out in 2016 by Western airstrikes and local militias. Many of its fighters have fled into the sparsely populated desert regions. They occasionally stage terrorist attacks on institutions of the rival governments backed by the United Nations and General Hifter, including a similar assault last spring on an election commission.
Several parties agreed in May to hold elections in December for a president and a Parliament. How and by whom that vote might be conducted and secured remains to be determined, and the recent fighting in Tripoli underscores the scale of the challenge.