ASTANA -- Special operations forces from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are taking part in a joint series of counter-terrorism exercises, the latest sign the two countries are boosting co-operation and understanding in the face of similar security threats, officials and analysts say.
The first stage of the Steppe Freedom exercise occurred in Almaty Province July 16, the Kazakh Ministry of Defence reported.
"According to the exercise scenario, a drone spotted illegal armed units. Special forces parachuted onto the site to guide [front-line] aviation and to wipe out the militants," the commander of a Kazakh military intelligence unit told Caravanserai on the condition of anonymity.
Special forces backed by up two fighter aircraft and by drone-guided artillery wiped out the "militants", he added.
"The assignments were accomplished by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan's special forces," said Kazakh Minister of Defence Saken Zhasuzakov. "The goals of the first stage of the joint exercise have been achieved."
"We plan to carry out the second stage of the exercise at Forish Training Centre in ... Uzbekistan," he said. The timing of the next drills is not yet set.
"We resolved many issues during the visit ... we have reached full understanding and compatibility in solving the problems of rapid-response combat training and personnel training," he added.
The "joint exercises showed the full co-ordination and mutual understanding of our special units", said Uzbek Defence Minister Abdusalom Azizov.
The joint drills are the latest sign of co-operation between the two Central Asian countries.
Сonsultations between the security councils of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan came first on June 29 in Tashkent.
The two sides discussed current issues in regional security and bilateral co-operation. Specific issues included the situations in Central Asia and Afghanistan and the development of military co-operation, according to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's website.
The talks were followed by the visit of a military delegation headed by Azizov to Kazakhstan on July 13. Accompanied by Zhasuzakov, the delegation visited military facilities, including the Zhetygen training centre.
During the visit, officials signed several defence co-operation agreements, which neither country described.
The Steppe Freedom exercise is "just the start, and over time we will go to larger-scale exercises", Zhasuzakov said during the meeting.
Facing threats together
Both countries face similar threats and need to work together to face them, according to regional analysts.
Two threats to Central Asian states compel them to unite, said Abdi Ismailov, a political scientist from Astana.
"Local terrorist sleeper cells may be activated [by] international terrorist organisations. The external and the internal terrorist threats are still there," he told Caravanserai.
"Other dangers have been discussed more and more frequently in recent times," he said. "The Kremlin's policies worry many experts because there is the probability that the imperial ambitions of Russian politicians will reach into Central Asia as well."
"Today there are real threats for the region, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are acting as guarantors of stability," Islam Kurayev, a Kazakh political scientist, said in an interview with the Kazakh newspaper Karavan published July 4. "Terrorists, using the instability in Afghanistan, are transiting that country undisturbed and Central Asia is right at hand."
Alisher Samigjonov, a political scientist from Uzbekistan, agreed with Kurayev, highlighting the threat of terrorism and the need for joint action.
"Because of its geographic position, Uzbekistan is much more susceptible to danger than is Kazakhstan," Samigjonov said in an interview also with Karavan.
"But it is important to note that if possible terrorist threats erupt, it will be necessary to work jointly ... with international forces headed by the military potential of NATO," he added.