BEIRUT (REUTERS) - An air strike reportedly killed dozens in a rebel-held town in Syria on Saturday, as a United Nations envoy visited Damascus to advance preparations for peace talks planned this month despite opposition misgivings.
Agreement was also reached for aid to be delivered today to an opposition-held town besieged by pro-government forces, where the UN says there have been credible reports of people dying of starvation, sources said. Aid will be sent simultaneously to two other towns blockaded by rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 57 people were killed in the air strike, which hit a courthouse and prison in the town of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province. It identified the jets as Russian, and said the courthouse was operated by the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
Russia has been staging air strikes in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad since September.
Four missiles struck the building and the dead included 23 members of the Nusra Front, three women and at least one child, the Observatory said.
Syrian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The war has raged since last month, when the Security Council endorsed a plan for peace talks - a rare case of United States-Russian agreement - on a conflict that has killed 250,000 people. The talks are due to begin on Jan 25 in Geneva.
The Syrian government told UN envoy Staffan de Mistura on Saturday that it was ready to participate, but wanted to know who would take part from the opposition, Syrian state media reported.
Damascus views all the groups fighting to topple Mr Assad as terrorists, including rebels who support a political solution and are represented in a recently formed opposition council tasked with overseeing the negotiations.
Syrian rebels and opposition politicians have expressed doubts over whether the peace talks will begin as planned. Their concerns over the diplomatic bid include the absence of any mention of Mr Assad's fate.
The Islam Army (Jaysh al-Islam), a major Syrian rebel group, said it was unacceptable to talk about a political solution to the war as people die of hunger and bombardment, and the best way to force Damascus towards a settlement was to give insurgents anti-aircraft missiles. The weekend statement by the group underlines opposition concerns over UN-led peace talks in Geneva.
The opposition wants goodwill measures including a ceasefire, a detainee release and the lifting of blockades on besieged areas before negotiations.
The aid deal agreed to on Saturday should see humanitarian supplies being sent to the opposition-held town of Madaya at the Lebanese border and to two towns in the north-western province of Idlib blockaded by rebels.
Aid agencies have warned of widespread starvation in Madaya, where some 40,000 people are at risk. The UN said on Thursday that Damascus had agreed to allow access to all three areas, but did not say when the delivery would take place.
"Both date and time have been set. Aid will go to three towns on Monday morning, all at the same time," said a source familiar with the matter. A second, pro-Syrian government source confirmed the details.