ISLAMABAD - Pakistan and Russia have begun annual joint military drills to boost counterterrorism cooperation to tackle the growing threat of Islamic State stemming from neighboring Afghanistan.
Officials said the "Druzhba-III" (Friendship-III) drills went into action Monday at the National Counter-Terrorist Center in the mountain town of Pabbi, where the Pakistan army's commando unit, the Special Services Group, is headquartered.
Chief army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor said this is the third exercise of the Pakistan-Russia bilateral training cooperation.
Russian military officials said during the two week exercises more than 70 Russian commando troops and their Pakistani counterparts will undertake joint tasks at an altitude of 1,400 meters.
Moscow and Islamabad launched the joint drills in 2016, a year after the local branch of Islamic State, known as Khorasan Province or ISK-P, unleashed its regional terrorist operations from bases in "ungoverned" border districts of Afghanistan.
ISK-P has carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in recent months.
Russia maintains the Middle Eastern-based terrorist group is trying to use volatile Afghan regions next to the border with Central Asian countries to threaten Russian regional security interests.
Pakistan blames ISK-P for plotting terrorist attacks in the country from its Afghan bases.
The Islamabad-Moscow security partnership has strengthened and expanded since late 2014, when the two former rivals signed their defense cooperation agreement.
In August, Moscow concluded an unprecedented contract with Islamabad, opening doors,for the first time,for Russian military training of Pakistani army officers.
The deal came amid Islamabad's deteriorating relations with Washington, which has resulted in the halt of all military exchange programs with Pakistan and left a void that Moscow has stepped in to fill.
Moscow and Islamabad have been pushing for starting peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency for ending the war and preventing Islamic State from using the turmoil-hit country as a sanctuary.
Russia acknowledges its contacts with the Taliban, while Islamabad is accused of covertly supporting the insurgents to sustain and expand the 17-year-old Afghan war.
The United States is critical of Russia's growing contacts with the Taliban, alleging Moscow is trying to undermine international efforts aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan. Washington has also cut defense ties with Islamabad for not doing enough to prevent Taliban insurgents from allegedly using Pakistani soil for deadly cross-border attacks.
Russian and Pakistani officials deny they are providing any military assistance or shelter to the Taliban and insist their ties with insurgents are meant to influence them to engage in an Afghan peace process.