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ISLAMABAD, April 27: Pakistan has been conducting joint military exercises with US troops and with armies of other countries, which is not an unusual thing, according to director-general Inter Services Public Relations Major-Gen Shaukat Sultan. Asked by his correspondent to comment on US Commander in Afghanistan Lt-Gen David Barno’s remarks published in a US newspaper that Americans had been training Pakistanis in night flying and airborne assault tactics, Maj-Gen Sultan said, “The point is joint military exercises are conducted with armies of many countries, including the US, to learn from each other’s experience.”

When asked if the US trained Pakistanis in night flying assault at Cherat, Maj Gen Sultan said joint training exercises encompassed night and day exercises.

Lt-Gen Barno told New York Times that he had visited the Special Services Group headquarters at Cherat, near Peshawar, on Saturday and watched a display by units trained by the US in their new Bell-4 helicopters. The Bell-4 helicopters have been provided to Pakistan by the US.

According to the newspaper, Lt-Gen Barno’s revelation was the first time the US had publicly acknowledged training Pakistani troops.

However, a Pakistani official gave a different version.

Saying that Pakistan-US military exercises were not anything unusual, he said that special forces had conducted joint tri-service exercises involving the army, navy and air force in 2002. In the 1990s, Pakistan conducted two army exercises with the US, code-named ‘Inspired Gambit II’ in 1997 and ‘Inspired Gambit I’ in 1995.

Referring to the joint military exercise ‘Inspired Venture/Gambit-V’ held at Cherat on Saturday, the official said the Vice Chief of the Army Staff, Gen Ahsan Saleem Hayat, had visited the area and noted that it was the ninth military exercise of its kind since 1993. The exercise was aimed at improving the “air assault techniques in counter-terrorism measures”.

US Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, Corps Commander Peshawar Lt-Gen Safdar Hussain, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Special Services Group Major-Gen Amir Faisal Alvi, Lt-Gen Zarrar Azim, Lt-Gen Tariq Majid, Lt-Gen Hamid Rab Nawaz and other senior officers of both the armies, including Lt-Gen Barno, had witnessed the joint exercise at Chearat.

Masood Haider adds from New York: New York Times said that Lt-Gen Barno’s comments had come as the Pakistani Army was gearing up for an operation.

“They are working this hard,” General Barno said of the Pakistani military. “It’s too early to say that there is a new offensive, and I don’t know what direction this is going to take, but there is no question, from the vice chief of the army staff down, that they very much intend to determine how best to get at the enemy.”

General Barno, who leaves next month after 18 months in Afghanistan, said Pakistan had successfully disrupted militants financed by Al Qaeda in South Waziristan, the paper said.

He predicted that the Taliban would suffer a major schism in coming months and expected many, including some senior commanders, to join a government reconciliation programme and give up their insurgency, leaving only a small hard-core still fighting.