BEIRUT — Thousands of Syrians were bused out of their towns Friday in the first stage of a widely criticized population transfer that reflects the relentless segregation of Syrian society along political and sectarian lines.

The coordinated evacuations delivered war-weary fighters and residents from two years of siege and hunger, but moved the country closer to a division of its national population by loyalty and sect.

As diplomacy in Moscow focused on the U.S. airstrikes targeting Syria, more than 2,350 people were bused out of the twin rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and another 5,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kfraya in the country’s north.

“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,” said Ahmad Afandar, a 19-year-old evacuee from Madaya whose parents stayed behind.

Madaya and Zabadani, once summer resorts to Damascus, have been shattered under the cruelty of government siege. The two towns rebelled against Damascus’ authority in 2011 when demonstrations swept through the country demanding the end of President Bashar Assad’s rule.

Residents were reduced to hunting rodents and eating the leaves off trees. Photos of children gaunt with hunger shocked the world and gave new urgency to U.N. relief operations in Syria.

Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars. They were supplied with food and medical supplies through military airdrops.