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Four Besieged Syrian Towns Are Being Evacuated In Reciprocal Swap

Buses carry Syrians as they leave on Friday from Madaya, an opposition-held town near Damascus, Syria.

Thousands of people are evacuating four besieged Syrian towns on Friday after rebels and the Syrian government reached a population swap agreement.

"In northern Syria, residents of Shia minority villages, long besieged by rebels, are leaving," NPR's Alison Meuse reports from Beirut. "Hundreds of miles away, two towns besieged by Syrian troops and their allies are also evacuating."

According to Reuters, "the opposition says the deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad's enemies away from the main cities of western Syria."

Assad denied that claim, Alison adds, calling it temporary.

The government siege of Madaya, one of the rebel-held towns that was evacuated today, gained international attention early last year after reports that residents were "eating leaves, grass and pets to survive," as The Two-Way reported.

The residents of Madaya had an option to stay there, though Alison reports that "many say they'll leave to avoid mandatory service in the Syrian army."

A video posted Friday on Facebook shows an woman weeping and embracing her son as he prepares to get onto a bus to leave Madaya. "Be careful," she tells him.

Some 2,200 people from the town, including about 400 fighters, headed toward Idlib province in northern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group. Government forces later entered the area, it added.

The nearby town of Zabadani, which had also been under government siege, is "to be depopulated," the Associated Press writes. "Rebel gunmen were expected to leave Zabadani on Saturday," the wire service said, adding that there are only about 160 and all are "believed to be fighters or medical workers."

About 5,000 people from two pro-government towns in Idlib province, Foua and Kefraya, were bused out to an area on the outskirts of Aleppo, according to Syrian state media.

"Those villages were besieged for two years by rebels, often used as a pressure card," Alison added. During that time, the towns have received sporadic airdrops of aid from the government, as we have reported.

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