Pakistan military chief strikes Australia aid deal

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Pakistan's military chief held low-key talks with Australian military commanders on Wednesday and agreed to step-up counter-terrorism cooperation as his country targets pro-Taliban militancy in the Swat Valley.

General Tariq Majid, the commander of the Pakistani armed forces, ended a two-day visit to Canberra for meetings with Australia's Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and his military counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.

"Pakistan's success in its conflict with Taliban extremists on its soil is critical to regional and global security, as well as Australia's own national interest," Fitzgibbon said in a statement after the closed-door visit.

Pakistan's government this month launched an offensive against militants in the picturesque Swat Valley, about 60 miles (100 km) from capital Kabul, as international alarm grew over intensifying insurgency.

Majid, Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee chairman and supporter of former dictator General Pervez Musharraf, committed to "eradicate extremism" while continuing to support U.S. and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, Fitzgibbon said.

Majid also agreed to send 70 troops to Australia for training, including counter-terrorism advice, he said.

Australia, a close Washington ally, has around 1,500 combat troops in neighbouring Afghanistan and like other Western nations, has been pressing Pakistan to step-up efforts to combat militants and prevent them moving across the Afghan border.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was later on Wednesday to announce extra aid for civilians affected by the latest fighting, estimated to have driven 1.5 million people from their homes.

The United States on Tuesday had offered Pakistan $110 million (71 million pounds) in humanitarian aid such as food, tents, radios and generators, to help people fleeing from the fighting in the Swat Valley.

"Confronting terrorism and reducing the threat of international terrorism is very important in Pakistan. We have been urging that upon the Pakistan Government for some time," Smith told Australian state radio.

Australia has already agreed to increase police aid to Pakistan, including help with crime and terrorism investigations and intelligence analysis.

Smith said Pakistan should do everything it could to limit civilian casualties as fighting in the North West Frontier region intensified.

(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Valerie Lee)

Article Published: 20/05/2009