MORE than 7000 people have been evacuated from four besieged towns in the latest co-ordinated population transfer in Syria’s six-year civil war.

As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the US air strikes targeting the country, more than 2350 people were taken by bus out of the twin towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus.

Another 5000 were transported out of the northern oppostion-held towns of Foua and Kfraya, according to Abdul Hakim Baghdadi, a pro-government interlocutor who helped negotiate the transfer.

Muhammad Darwish was among the evacuees from Madaya. He said: “Honestly, when we left Madaya, I felt sadness, anger and sorrow. But now, on the road, I don’t feel anything. I feel cold as ice.”

Ahmad Afandar, 19, left parents behind in Madaya. He said: “There was no heating, no food, nothing to sustain our lives. We left so that God willing [the siege] may ease on those who remain.”

In a video posted on Facebook from one of the buses departing Madaya, a man identified as Hossam said: “We were forced to leave. We left our land, our parents, our memories, our childhood – everything.”

He added, however. “I have conviction that we will be back.”

Critics have denounced the transfer deal as a forced rearrangement of the country’s population, with sectarian overtones.

Through a deft policy of divide and conquer, President Bashar Assad has steered what started as a broad movement against his authority in 2011 into a choice between him and Sunni Islamist rule.

Madaya and Zabadani are believed to now be wholly inhabited by Sunnis. The predominantly Shiite Foua and Kfraya have remained loyal to the Syrian government, while the surrounding Idlib province has come under hard-line Sunni, rebel rule.

The evacuation deal was brokered by Qatar, negotiating on behalf of the rebels, and Iran, on behalf of the government, in March. The United Nations is not supervising the evacuations.

These were the first in a number of evacuations stretching over two months to move some 30,000 Syrians from besieged areas.