Syria air strikes
Russian Tupolev TU-22 long-range strategic bombers conduct an air strike at an unknown location in Syria Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Reuters

At least 60 people have been killed by air strikes on a town in northern Syria, activists have claimed. Tweeting pictures and video of the victims, locals in Maarrat al-Nu'man blamed Russian warplanes for the carnage.

Among the dead were "civilians, fighters and prisoners," according to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The strikes "also hit a prison complex near the market run by al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front", it said. The building reportedly housed the group's religious court and a jail.

"The number of the dead is likely to rise according to the serious injuries," sustained by people wounded by the attack or trapped under rubble, the SOHR said.

The attack on the town around 180 miles north of Syria's capital Damascus, was confirmed to Al Jazeera by the volunteer-run Syria Civil Defence. They also blamed Russian planes for the attack.

"Many of those injured are in very serious conditions, the death toll is expected to rise," a spokesman for the group told the Qatar-based broadcaster. "Our volunteers are still in the area that was targeted by the air strikes. They are still trying to help those injured and affected by the attack."

Russia began air strikes in October 2015 but Syrian ground forces are showing few signs of being able to use this to their advantage. While Russia claimed they would be used to strike Islamic State (Isis), they have been accused of hitting other groups opposed to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

Idlib province, where Maarrat al-Nu'man is based, has been stronghold for those opposed to Assad. But in the spring of 2015, it was taken over by a coalition of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, which included the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front.

The 9 January strikes come two days after UN officials said the Syrian government has agreed to allow aid into Madaya where more than 30 people have reportedly died of starvation or been killed trying to escape in the past month.

The town, which lies around 30 miles north west of Damascus near the border with Lebanon, has been under siege by the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies since July.

Five years of fighting have killed over 250,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, displaced more than half the population of 17 million, and left four-and-a-half million people in hard-to-reach areas, 400,000 of them under siege, according to the UN.