Air strike kills dozens in Syria as U.N. envoy visits Damascus

Sat Jan 9, 2016 6:34pm EST
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By Tom Perry and Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT (Reuters) - An air strike reportedly killed dozens of people in a rebel-held town in Syria on Saturday as a U.N. envoy visited Damascus to advance preparations for peace talks planned this month despite opposition misgivings.

Agreement was also reached for aid to be delivered on Monday to an opposition-held town besieged by pro-government forces where United Nations says there have been credible reports of people dying of starvation, sources said. Aid will be sent simultaneously to two villages blockaded by rebels.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 57 people were killed in the air strike, which hit a court house and prison in the town of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province. It identified the jets as Russian, and said the court house 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. The building was struck with four missiles. 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 on since last month when the Security Council endorsed a plan for peace talks, a rare case of U.S.-Russian agreement over a conflict that has killed 250,000 people. The talks are due to begin on Jan. 25 in Geneva.

The Syrian government told U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Saturday it was ready to participate but wants to know who would take part from the opposition, Syrian state media reported.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem also said it was important to see a list of groups that would be classified as terrorists as part of the new diplomatic process, flagging another potential complication.   Continued...

A civil defence member reacts as people look for survivors amidst dead bodies in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria January 9, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi