POTI, Georgia – The U.S., fed-up with the Moscow's delay in withdrawing from war-torn Georgia, demanded Thursday that Russian troops leave Georgia "now," Reuters reported.
The White House demand came amid growing tensions between the West and Russia, which is accused of violating its promise to pull its military from the region.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has promised that his forces would pull back from Georgia by Friday, but Russian troops appeared to be in no hurry — even settling down in strategic spots — raising concerns about whether Moscow is aiming for a lengthy occupation of its small, pro-Western neighbor.
Russian forces dug trenches and built long-term fortifications in some key areas of Georgia Thursday, yet rolled columns of tanks north toward home elsewhere, picking and choosing with military precision exactly how their nation would comply with the terms of an EU-brokered peace accord.
The war in a small country straining to escape Moscow's influence has sent tensions between Russia and the West to some of their highest levels since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. NATO, Moscow's Cold War foe, said Thursday it had received a note from Moscow announcing that Russia is halting military cooperation with the trans-Atlantic alliance.
ussian forces took up positions Thursday at the entrance to Georgia's main Black Sea port city of Poti, excavating trenches, setting up mortars and blocking a key bridge with armored personnel carriers and trucks. Another group of APCs and trucks were positioned in a nearby wooded area.
An AP cameraman was threatened by armed Russian troops near Poti on Thursday, who stripped his video from his camera.
Russian troops also controlled the central Georgian city of Gori and the village of Igoeti, about 30 miles west of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Both are along Georgia's main east-west highway.
Russian soldiers were digging permanent structures, building high earthen berms and stringing barbed wire in at least three spots on the road between Gori and Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.
Nonetheless, a top Russian general said troops were moving out in accordance with the EU-brokered peace deal.
"The pullback of Russian forces is taking place at such a tempo that by the end of August 22 they will be in the zones of responsibility of Russian peacekeepers," Col.-Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the general staff, said Thursday in Moscow.
Some Russian troops and military vehicles were on the move Thursday, including 21 tanks an AP reporter saw heading toward Russia from inside the separatist province of South Ossetia. Columns of heavy weaponry — including tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks — were also seen moving in both directions on the road from Gori to Tskhinvali.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner hailed the report of tank movements as a positive step.
"We are waiting ...for the Russians to respect their word," Kouchner told reporters in Paris. "We waited twice with dashed hopes. This time, it appears that there is at least the beginning of a fulfillment."
But in Washington, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said the moves appeared cosmetic.
"There has not been much evidence of any significant Russian withdrawals. There have been what I would call some minimal movements to date," he said.
Outside Tskhinvali, several ethnic-Georgian villages were burning Thursday — many days after fighting had ended — and bore evidence of destruction from looting. Some Ossetians in the area said they were not prepared to live side-by-side with Georgians anymore.
"It's not they, it's we who will erase them from the face of earth," said Alan Didurov, 46.
An EU-sponsored cease-fire says both Russian and Georgian forces must move back to positions held before fighting broke out Aug. 7 in South Ossetia, which has close ties to Russia.
The agreement also says Russian forces can work in a so-called "security zone" that extends 4.3 miles into Georgia from South Ossetia and another security zone along the border with Abkhazia, another separatist Georgian region.
Poti, however, is far from any permitted zone for Russians — 20 miles south of Abkhazia and 95 miles west of South Ossetia.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili called Russia's actions "some kind of deception game."
"[The Russians] are making fun of the world," he told the Associated Press late Wednesday.
Several thousand people rallied Thursday in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi to demand the region be recognized as independent, and a similar rally took place in Tskhinvali. Renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who is Ossetian, was to lead a requiem concert for the dead in the devastated central square there Thursday night, part of an effort to win international sympathy and support for Russia's argument that its invasion of Georgia was justified.
Russian officials, including Medvedev, have suggested Moscow may recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. Western leaders have stressed that Georgia must retain its current borders.
Despite the EU peace accord, Nogovitsyn said Georgia has "no moral right" to return its soldiers to South Ossetia and said Russia will build 18 checkpoints in the security cordon around the province.
In a move sure to heighten tensions, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid was heading to Georgia on Thursday through Turkey's straits.
It was the first of three U.S. Navy ships that will carry supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits and baby food to Georgia. The Turkish straits, Dardanelles and Bosporus, are the only naval passage possible between the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
The three ships include the guided destroyer USS McFaul; the coast guard cutter Dallas and the command ship USS Mount Whitney.
Paul Farley, a spokesman for the Souda Bay U.S. naval base in Crete, said all three ships were expected to reach Georgia "within the next week." He did not give their exact destination.
The United States has also delivered aid to Tbilisi on 20 flights since Aug. 19.
About 80,000 people displaced by the fighting are in more than 600 centers in and around Tbilisi. The United Nations estimates 158,000 people in all fled their homes in the last two weeks — some south to regions around Tbilisi, some north to Russia.
In the Georgian town of Kaspi, 25 miles west of Tbilisi, volunteers for the World Food program put together packets of pasta, wheat flour, oil and bread for refugees from Gori and South Ossetia. One older women fainted after standing in line at the distribution center.
Many Georgians were too afraid to return to a Russian-occupied area.
"We always loved Russians, but the thing they are doing now is that they are ruining everything, terrorizing people, killing, looting," said refugee Zhuzhuna Gogidze. "We do not want our enemies here."
In Russia, some of the estimated 37,000 refugees there complained that government aid has been slow in coming.
"I was hoping Russia would help me," said Frosia Besayeva, 30, as she waited with her two small children for humanitarian aid in Beslan, Russia. "But so far we haven't seen anything except for promises."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.