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Smoke rises following what witnesses said was an air strike during a battle between Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government and Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Hani Amara - RTX2OJ7B

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By Emma Batha

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations launched an emergency $10.7 million appeal on Monday to help tens of thousands of people heading back to the Libyan city of Sirte amid military operations to oust Islamic State fighters from their last hideouts.

Libyan forces aligned with the country's U.N.-backed government are said to be close to capturing the coastal city, which became Islamic State's most important stronghold outside Syria and Iraq when the jihadist group took control last year.

Those who have fled the area have reported severe shortages of food and medicines as well as lootings, public beheadings, "crucifixions" on scaffolding and abductions, the U.N. relief agency said in a report accompanying its appeal.

It described the humanitarian situation in the city as "complex and acute". Military operations have triggered new displacement while many other families have returned to areas now cleared of militants.

Those heading back to Sirte face "extremely difficult conditions", the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, adding that the number living in the area is expected to rise from 48,300 to 79,400 by the end of the year.

There is an urgent need for drinking water, food and basic household items, it said. Health services lack life-saving medicines, while almost all schools need repairs, affecting around 30,000 children.

Families will also require psycho-social support, the report said.

Libya's U.N.-backed government anticipates Sirte will be recaptured within weeks following a military campaign which began in May and has been supported by U.S. air strikes.

But OCHA warned that explosive remnants and improvised explosive devices littering the city would render much of it inaccessible and hinder reconstruction.

Some $4.4 million of the appeal is to train teams to clear explosives and educate returning residents about the risks.

The campaign to recapture Sirte is only one of many challenges in Libya, where the U.N.-backed government is trying to unite a multitude of rival factions that have divided the country since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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