China holds first anti-terror drills with Saudi Arabia

BEIJING (Reuters) - Special forces from China and Saudi Arabia have held their first joint anti-terrorism drills, state media reported on Thursday, China’s latest effort to expand security ties with countries in the Middle East and its Muslim neighbors.

China says its companies and citizens face a growing threat from terrorism as its global footprint expands, and the government has been getting more involved diplomatically in trouble spots in areas such as the Middle East.

President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia early this year, vowing to expand security cooperation and oppose terrorism.

Twenty-five people from each side took part in training over two weeks from Oct. 10 focused on anti-terrorism combat skills and tactics near China’s southwestern city of Chongqing, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said.

“This joint anti-terrorism training is directed at raising the two militaries’ ability to combat terrorism and non-traditional security threats,” the paper said.

Chinese officials have long been concerned that instability in Afghanistan will spill over into China’s western region of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people. Hundreds of people have died there in recent years in unrest the government blames on militant separatists.

Authorities in bordering Kyrgyzstan said a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital in August was ordered by Uighur militants active in Syria.

In the face of such threats, China in August set up an anti-terrorism alliance with neighbors Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which all border Xinjiang.

From Oct. 20 to Oct. 24, more than 400 troops from China and Tajikistan held joint anti-terrorism drills along the remote mountainous Tajik border with Afghanistan, Chinese media reported on Tuesday.

Afghan officials observed the exercises, which included hostage rescue and combat training.

Human rights groups say violence in Xinjiang is more a reaction to repressive government policies and limits on Uighurs’ religious freedoms, accusations the government denies.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have fled the unrest and traveled clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey. China says some of them then end up joining militants in Iraq and Syria.

Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel