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GENEVA (Reuters) - Libya's interim government has asked the United Nations for fuel for ambulances to evacuate its wounded fighters from the besieged city of Sirte amid reports of heavy casualties, a U.N. source in Libya said on Thursday.
Desperate civilians were fleeing the coastal city, held by fighters loyal to deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi, before dawn when pro-Gaddafi forces start guarding checkpoints, the source told Reuters.
The United Nations is sending trucks of drinking water for the increasing flow of civilians crammed into vehicles on the road from Sirte, heading either toward Benghazi to the east or Misrata to the west, he said.
But fighting around the city, Gaddafi's hometown, and continuing insecurity around the Bani Walid area, the other loyalist hold-out, are preventing the world body from deploying aid workers inside, he said.
"There are two places we'd really like access to, Sirte and Ben Walid, because of concern on the impact of conflict on the civilian population," the U.N. source in Tripoli, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Geneva.
The United Nations has stocks of food and water in both Benghazi and Misrata for the displaced but many are taken care of by villagers and local councils on the way, he said.
Civilians are streaming out of Sirte, where a humanitarian disaster looms with rising casualties and shrinking supplies of water, electricity and food, aid agencies said on Wednesday.
Humanitarian partner agencies report that up to 20,000 displaced people from Sirte, a city of 100,000, now appear to be scattered in towns west of Sirte, the U.N. source said.
"We know battles are raging and we would like access to Sirte but nobody has been able to enter the city," he said. "We've heard there are a lot of casualties and wounded are being sent toward Misrata."
"The displaced say there are heavy casualties in the city as both parties are using heavy weapons and mortars," he said.
The United Nations had received reports two days ago that 171 armed NTC fighters were wounded in Sirte, he said.
"We've received a request for fuel for ambulances from the NTC to move wounded people from the frontlines westward. That gives an indication that maybe logistics are not working as effectively as they could and we need to step in with support."
The International Medical Corps, a private aid group, helps run a field hospital about 50 km (30 miles) outside Sirte where wounded NTC fighters and civilians are treated.
"Last night and this morning there was quite a high number of patients, about 50 patients," Edi Cosic, IMC's country director in Libya, told Reuters on Thursday.
"The patients are stabilized for air transport by helicopter to Misrata hospital where further treatment takes place," he said on return to Tripoli from the hospital.
A small clinic nearby provides care to civilians passing through. "We have a number of women in advanced pregnancy and one delivery so far," Cosic said.
U.N. officials do not have direct contact with pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirte, where both sides accuse the other of cutting off water and electricity, the U.N. source said.
"We had reports two days ago that up to 250 vehicles per day are leaving westward, early in the morning before checkpoints are properly manned by pro-Gaddafi forces.
"We are focusing primarily on the displaced because our capacity is not very strong. The main challenge is to find where they are, what the numbers are and what their needs are," the U.N. source said.
Editing by Janet Lawrence