(dpa) - Russian combat forces withdrew from parts of Georgia on Friday but were still manning key checkpoints deep into the country two weeks after invading.
Georgia's security council chief Alexander Lomaia confirmed Russian forces had left three strategic cities by a Friday 8 pm deadline.
He added, however, that Russian troops had not dismantled checkpoints on a key highway running westwards from Tbilisi to Senaki.
Russian armoured columns were moving north from the central Gori sector into South Ossetia Friday, but a defensive cordon remained in place with checkpoints outside Gori and near the Georgian village of Igoeti.
Russian troopers driving northward passed by a Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa reporter on the Gori-Tskhinvali road shouted " Russia!" and "We're going home!"
But reconnaissance, tank and infantry peacekeepers operating checkpoints in the vicinity said they had not received orders to evacuate.
Russian infantry were continuing to dig in on high ground overlooking a river bridge near Igoeti. Fuel tankers were refuelling tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and supply lorries were delivering food and water to Russian troops.
Russia's army general staff said Friday that troops were "in the final stage of pulling back," fulfilling President Dmitry Medvedev's pledge to pull out troops by Friday.
But a top general said that Russian troops would continue to hold buffer zones stretching into Georgia proper and maintain hundreds of peacekeeping forces in the two breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The United States has criticized the planned buffer zone as a half- way measure that fails to comply with the ceasefire agreement.
At a briefing in Moscow, the deputy head of the Russian general staff, Anatoly Nogovitsyn, showed a map detailing the "zone of responsibility" of the "Russian peacekeepers."
The zone included control over a key highway linking the capital of Tbilisi to a military base in Senaki and the Black Sea Port of Poti, monopolizing vital trade routes within Georgia.
Colonel General Novogitsyn added that Moscow "reserved the right if needed to boost these forces with units from the Russian peacekeepers contingent."
A contingent of 2,142 Russian peacekeeping forces would remain in Abkhazia and 452 troops in South Ossetia, he said, explaining the move as a means to protect against looters and future ethnic clashes.
There has been international criticism at Moscow's delayed withdrawal from Georgia, resulting in a freeze of Russia's military cooperation with NATO.
US President George W Bush called for an end to the Russian "siege" in a telephone conversation on Thursday with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US ally.
But Russian military commanders Friday brushed aside Bush's demands, saying they were complying with the peace accord that ended the 10 days of fighting.
"The president of the United States is on vacation. Obviously, he is not receiving timely information. We recommend the president's press secretary should pay more attention to our press conferences," Nogovitsyn said.
Russians manning checkpoints along the Tbilisi-Gori road were permitting civilian and humanitarian traffic to pass, but were blocking "unscheduled" diplomats and media.
A Russian national flag still flew over the Gori checkpoint.
The western town of Senaki, site of Georgia's largest air base, and the port of Poti, on the Black Sea coast, had seen no reductions in Russian occupation forces by early afternoon on Friday.
Georgian media reported explosions at the Georgian military bases in Senaki just minutes before the 8 pm pullback deadline, suggesting the ongoing demolition of Georgian military hardware by Russian forces.
Russian forces rolled into Georgia on August 8 to push back a Georgian offensive to re-take control of the rebel South Ossetia region, which won de facto autonomy in a civil war in the early 1990s.
Russian troops also moved forward in Georgia's other breakaway region of Abkhazia, and seized key strategic bases in Georgia, including Poti.
Moscow is set to review its policy on Abkhazia and South Ossetia in an emergency parliamentary session on Monday. South Ossetia's parliament on Friday voted unanimously to request Russia to accept South Ossetian independence.
The Kremlin has suggested that Kosovo serve as a precedent in international law for recognizing the two rebel regions' bid for independence.
Thousands of Georgian civilians have fled South Ossetia in the aftermath of the war, and journalists in the region Friday reported that their burned villages were being demolished by bulldozers brought in as part of the Russian reconstruction effort.
The ethnic tensions and outflow of refugees are greater than during the conflict of the early 1990s, and threaten to change permanently the patchwork of Ossetian and Georgian villages in the region.
South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity said Friday that ethnic Georgians would not be allowed to return, adding their villages had been "liquidated," local media reported.