A Russian mechanised infantry unit arrived in Pakistan on Friday for the first military exercise between the two Cold War rivals, with reports suggesting part of the high altitude drill would be conducted in territory claimed by India.
Lt Gen Asim Bajwa, head of the Pakistani military’s media arm, tweeted photos of the Russian troops after they flew into an airbase in Rawalpindi, squelching speculation that Moscow would call off the wargame in the wake of the terror attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri .
“A contingent of Russian ground forces arrived in Pakistan for first ever Pak- Russian joint exercise (two weeks) from September 24 to October 10,” Bajwa said. The Russian contingent was warmly welcomed by senior Pakistan Army officials before it left for the training venue.
About 200 soldiers from each side will join the two-week exercise “Druzhba 2016” (Friendship 2016), which is expected to focus on high-altitude warfare.
Russia’s state-run Tass news agency reported on Friday the exercise’s opening ceremony would be held at the “Pakistan Army’s High Altitude School in Rattu, Gilgit-Baltistan” on Saturday. A statement issued late on Friday night by the Russian embassy in New Delhi, however, said the “only venue of the exercise is Cherat” in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
The statement said the drill will not be held in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or any “sensitive or problematic” areas like Gilgit-Baltistan.
A contingent of Russian ground forces arrived Pak for 1st ever Pak- Russian joint exercise (2 weeks) from 24 Sep to 10 Oct 2016 pic.twitter.com/eWzQMlENL6— Gen Asim Bajwa (@AsimBajwaISPR) September 23, 2016
New Delhi had conveyed to Moscow its concerns that part of the drill would be held at a military facility in Gilgit-Baltistan, which was part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state and is claimed by India. Following the Uri attack that killed 18 soldiers, sections of the Indian media reported that India had prevailed on Russia to call off the exercise.
External affairs ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup referred to plans for manoeuvres in Gilgit-Baltistan on Thursday and said this was “part of Indian territory”. New Delhi’s “well known sensitivities” had been conveyed to Moscow, he said.
Earlier reports in the Pakistani media too said the exercise will be conducted at the High Altitude School at Rattu and at a special forces training centre at Cherat.
The drill reflects the growing military-to-military ties between Pakistan and Russia, whose relations were strained for decades following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The two sides have taken several steps to improve defence relations as India’s military procurements moved away from Russia to the US and Israel.
Russia lifted a long-standing arms embargo and signed a landmark military cooperation agreement with Pakistan in 2014. Last year, the two sides finalised a deal for four Mi-35 attack helicopters – a move that angered India. Since then, reports have suggested that Pakistan is interested in acquiring more military gear from Russia, including Su-35 combat jets.
The Pakistani media reported the joint exercise indicates a steady growth in ties between the two countries. Pakistan’s envoy 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.
The chiefs of Pakistan’s army, navy and air force have also visited Russia over the past 15 months.
In a related development, Pakistan Army chief Gen Raheel Sharif on Friday inaugurated state of the art facilities at the National Counter Terrorism Center located near Kharian. The center trains local and foreign army units for counter-terror operations.