Confusion persisted on Saturday regarding the venue of the first Russia-Pakistan military exercise despite a statement from the Russian embassy in New Delhi that the drill would not be held in a “sensitive or problematic” area such as Gilgit-Baltistan.
Sources in Islamabad told Hindustan Times that there had been no change in plans for the drill to be held at the Pakistan Army’s High Altitude School at Rattu in Gilgit-Baltistan and a special forces training centre at Cherat in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
“The exercise is going ahead at Rattu. The Russian unit that has come is one that specializes in mountain warfare in terrain such as that found in Rattu,” a source said.
Adding to the confusion was a post on the drill on the Russian defence ministry’s website in the section “exercises”, which clearly said: “Friendship-2016, Russian-Pakistani tactic exercise, is held in the territory of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in at the bases of Rattu, the military mountain training school, and a training center of the special units in Cherat on September 24 – October 10.”
Sources said this post on the Russian defence ministry’s website had also been shared with journalists in Islamabad.
A post in the “news” section of the Russian defence ministry’s website announced that the Russian troops had arrived for the exercise but gave no details of the venue of the drill.
The influential Dawn newspaper too reported that the exercise would be held at Rattu in Gilgit-Baltistan and Cherat.
“The exercises will be held at Cherat – where the Special Services Group, the commando division of the Pakistan Army, is headquartered and where the Special Operations School is also located – and at the Army High Altitude School in Rattu, Astore district,” said the report on the paper’s back page.
“The war games gained added significance after India advised Russia against holding drills in Pakistan. Importantly, these are being held at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan have climaxed in the aftermath of the Uri terrorist attack . Indian media had been claiming that Moscow agreed to call off the exercises,” the report added.
After India repeatedly expressed its concerns about the plans to hold the drill in Gilgit-Baltistan, which was part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state and is claimed by India, the Russian embassy in New Delhi issued a statement late on Friday night that said the drill would not be held in a “sensitive or problematic” area.
“Contrary to some reports appearing in a section of the press, the Russia-Pakistan antiterror exercise is not being held and will not be held in any point of so-called ‘Azad Kashmir’ or in any other sensitive or problematic areas like Gilgit and Baltistan,” the statement said.
“The only venue of the exercise is Cherat. All reports alleging the drills taking place at the High Altitude Military School in Rattu are erroneous and mischievous,” it added.
Significantly, the Russian defence ministry’s statement described Rattu as part of “the territory of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”.
About 70 soldiers from a mountain motorised rifle brigade of Russia’s Southern Military Division are taking part in the exercise. The drill is aimed at improving cooperation while “performing assigned tasks in mountains, including ones aimed at eliminating illegal armed groups”, the Russian ministry said.