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About 1000 personnel from the three branches of the armed forces started arriving yesterday in the South Canterbury and North Otago areas for one of the biggest exercises to be held in New Zealand for years.
They will be based in and around Timaru until Friday when they will start to move to North Otago for scenarios that will have them operating in and around Oamaru until March 6.
Specific details of Exercise Southern Katipo are being kept secret so personnel are not tipped off, but on Sunday and March 3, troops and vehicles will operate in Oamaru town and surrounding areas.
Senior media adviser with the army Major Christian Dunne said the troop movement was one of the "biggest for years".
The exercise is to test and evaluate the defence force's ability to react quickly to short-notice deployments, such as assistance to other countries, protected evacuation of New Zealand nationals, disruption of insurgent and criminal groups, and humanitarian relief.
"You only have to look at what is in the news today about other countries to see we may be called upon to assist, including protecting and evacuating New Zealanders," he said.
North Otago and South Canterbury were chosen "as afictional country" because they were far enough away from Linton army camp to simulate shifting personnel, vehicles and support to another country by sea and air.
The exercise involves the army, air force and navy.
The initial move was last night, deploying troops by air force C130s to Timaru Airport to secure the airport, establish a forward operating base then secure Timaru Port for the arrival of HMNZS Canterbury today.
Canterbury will be landing troops and army vehicles at the port.
Others will come from Burnham by road and air.
The exercise will be around Timaru this week, before moving on to Oamaru and North Otago for further scenarios from Saturday until March 6.
Personnel will be carrying weapons during the exercise and will use blank ammunition during some scenarios.
The exercise is being co-ordinated by the commander of land forces headquarters at Linton, Colonel Howard Duffy.