China and Turkey started a symbolic joint military exercise yesterday, with Beijing sending troops to a Nato country for the first time. The Ministry of National Defence said that a special operations squad under the People's Liberation Army had successfully conducted the first drill with Turkish forces at an unspecified military training centre in the country. The exercise will last for a week. These are the first land operations between the PLA and a Nato country, and they come after recent naval and air force drills with Italy and Turkey. 'The aim is to increase mutual trust between the two armies, deepen our co-operation in practical issues and strengthen our capabilities in carrying out joint military actions,' Xinhua said. Mainland security experts said it was a counter-insurgency drill. Though the scale of the exercise is small, it will send a strong political message to Uygur separatists in the restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Beijing has accused some Uygur groups of conducting terrorist activities in Xinjiang. 'Both sides chose to hold the exercise in mountainous terrain. That is a strong indication, as it is where terrorists usually hide,' Li Wei , an anti-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, said. Ethnically and culturally close to Turkey, the Uygur independent movements have traditionally found strong sympathy there. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayib Erdogan described Beijing's crackdown on Uygur riots in Xinjiang last year as genocide, triggering angry rebuffs from China. But ties have since improved, as Ankara is eager to mend the relationship with Beijing, which has become a major trade partner. Chinese Su-27 fighter jets flew across Iran to Turkey early last month for mock dogfights with Turkish pilots. It was a surprise to many observers and seen as a big test of the PLA air force's long-range refuelling capabilities. While the latest exercise fits into the broader pattern of the PLA's top brass expanding military diplomacy with both Asian and Western counterparts, the relationship with Turkey appears to be driven by strategic goals. The drill follows a visit to Beijing last week by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and ongoing discussions about the terrorist threat in Xinjiang. 'China and Turkey have been strengthening co-operation in anti-terrorism over the past months. What we see is not an isolated incident but a general trend,' Li said. Xinhua last week blamed a bomb attack in Akesu , Xinjiang, on August 19 on 'terrorist activities' of the 'three forces' - a code name for radical Uygur separatists. Eight people, including the two attackers, were killed and 15 injured, Xinhua said. While China works with Nato navies in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, relations have been dogged by suspicions dating to the cold war. PLA ships have also visited the Gulf, Myanmar, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific recently.