BALYKCHI, Kyrgyzstan (AP) – Russian jets and helicopters struck mountainside targets in northern Kyrgyzstan on Friday in Central Asia’s largest anti-terrorist military exercises since the Soviet collapse.

The more than 2,000 troops participating in the exercises were trying to demonstrate the ability of countries in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a grouping of six former Soviet republics, to beat back a terrorist incursion.

It was also a chance for Russia to show it’s still a force in Central Asia, where the arrival of American troops after the Sept. 11 attacks spawned a new struggle for influence in the strategic area.

“The situation in Central Asia is stable, but we don’t rule out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan or any other countries in the region,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said.

Aircraft from a new Russian-led base in Kyrgyzstan took part in the exercises for the first time, and a Russian commander said Moscow plans to double the number of troops based there by the end of the year. U.S. forces are also based in Kyrgyzstan.

The exercises took place as terrorist threats appeared to be rising in the region after two waves of attacks in neighboring Uzbekistan – including suicide bombings last week at the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the chief prosecutor’s office that killed at least four people. Uzbekistan is not a member of the security treaty.

In the exercises, troops from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan battled 120 fictitious militants in a steep, barren gorge in Kyrgyzstan. Helicopters fired a barrage of rockets, and fighter jets bombed a village to weed out militants. Special forces from all four countries then swept into the village.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev said the group also is considering pre-emptive operations in Afghanistan, but gave no details.

“We don’t have to wait for militants from Afghanistan to cross the Afghan-Tajik border, but we should take preventive measures rather than allow them to come to the region,” Akayev said.

AP-ES-08-06-04 0857EDT

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