Pakistan, Russia open first-ever military drill

Two-week exercise to focus on high-altitude warfare

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and Russia will carry out their first joint military exercise this weekend, the Pakistani military said Friday, at a time of heightened tensions between Islamabad and nuclear-armed rival India.

The former Cold War-era rivals will hold their first-ever military exercise, in another sign of shifting alliances in South Asia.

During the Cold War, Pakistan spent a decade helping the United States funnel arms and fighters into neighbouring Afghanistan to help Mujahideen groups fight Soviet soldiers following their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

At the time, the communist Soviet Union was closely aligned with Pakistan's arch-enemy India, while the United States was a staunch supporter of Pakistan.

The high-altitude drill is being seen as a demonstration of closer defence ties between the Islamabad and Moscow after they signed a military cooperation pact in 2014.

It comes after intense drills by the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) earlier this week that officials said had been long-planned, including landing combat aircraft on the Islamabad to Lahore motorway.

"A contingent of Russian ground forces arrived in Pakistan for 1st ever Pak-Russian joint exercise from 24 September to 10 October 2016," military spokesman Lieutenant General Asim Bajwa tweeted Friday, without giving further details.

The Russian contingent was warmly welcomed by senior Pakistan Army officials before it left for the training venue.

About 200 soldiers from both sides will join the two-week exercise “Druzhba 2016” (Friendship 2016).

Russia's Defence Ministry said about 70 mountain infantry troops arrived in Pakistan Friday to participate in the exercise. The ministry said the drills starting Saturday will help "develop and strengthen military cooperation between the two countries."

The exercise will be conducted at the Pakistan Army’s High Altitude School at Rattu in Gilgit-Baltistan and at a special forces training centre at Cherat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The drill is expected to focus on high-altitude warfare.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to Russia Qazi Khalilullah said the exercise also reflected the increased cooperation between the two sides. “This obviously indicates a desire on both sides to broaden defence and military-technical cooperation,” he told a Russian news agency.

Pakistani defence and security analyst Hasan Askari said the exercise "signifies Russian desire to expand their options in South Asia", adding it was the "natural" result of closer Indian ties with the US.

Islamabad has also been negotiating with Moscow a deal to buy combat helicopters. "These helicopters were to be supplied this year but now they are likely to arrive in 2017," Askari said.

The chiefs of Pakistan’s army, navy and air force have also visited Russia over the past 15 months.

On Thursday the PAF launched Highmark Exercise, shutting down sections of the motorway leading out of the capital to land "several" combat aircraft for the first time in six years, a senior security source told AFP. The drill came as Pakistan and India traded angry words over an attack on an Indian army base in Held Kashmir that Delhi has blamed on Islamabad.

But Pakistani officials said Highmark is a routine exercise, with a senior security official telling AFP that preparations - including setting the dates it would take place - had begun around one year ago.

The drill is aimed at enhancing "operational preparedness", the official said, and will continue for several weeks followed by months of evaluation.

Earlier in the week the Pakistani military briefly closed airspace above Gilgit-Baltistan region neighbouring Kashmir.

Foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakariya said in Islamabad Thursday the moves were regular and routine.

Two days ago Indian media claimed that Russia has called off the military exercise with Pakistan in the wake of Uri attack.

The Pakistani manoeuvres coincide with a Russian-Indian military exercise launched Thursday at a military shooting range in Russia's far east, which involve 250 troops from each side.

Moscow and New Delhi maintained close political and military ties during the Cold War, while the US backed India's neighbour and rival, Pakistan. India has remained a top customer for Russian weapons, but Moscow has also sought to develop ties with Pakistan.

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