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New post-Soviet force begins military exercises

Almaty (Kazakhstan) (AP/PTI): Thousands of troops from Russia and four other ex-Soviet nations began military exercises in southern Kazakhstan, the first of its kind for the newly formed NATO-style rapid-reaction force.

Moscow is hoping the force will help bolster the power and prestige of the seven-nation Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which Russia is hoping will help counterbalance NATO but to date has been seen largely as a mere talking shop.

More than 7,000 troops gathered at the Matybulak training grounds on Friday for the manoeuvres, which are expected to last two weeks, the Kazakh Defence Ministry said in a statement on its Web site.

The ministry said the drills will, among other things, help train troops in combating insurgent uprisings in CSTO member countries, something that has worried some Central Asian nations that share borders with Afghanistan or Pakistan.

In June, President Dmitry Medvedev and leaders of Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan finalised the creation of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force. The other members of the CSTO, Belarus and Uzbekistan, declined to take part.

Cohesion in the alliance has already been under strain amid Russian attempts to boost its presence in impoverished Kyrgyzstan, a plan that has been strongly resisted by neighbouring Uzbekistan, traditionally Central Asia's dominant power broker.

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