Russia on Monday launched one of the largest anti-terrorism drills in recent years in its troubled south, involving 32,000 personnel from the police, intelligence and military branches of the security forces, media reports said.

The exercises began in the Rostov region with a simulated terror attack by militants on a population center.

Television pictures showed helicopter gunships firing from above as masked rebels ran on the ground with a group of pretend hostages.

The NTV channel said that the drill aimed to test the ability of police, Federal Security Service and Defense Ministry units to coordinate their actions during special operations.

The TV report said that after Rostov, the exercises would move to Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkariya in the next few days.

China, which faces a Muslim separatist movement in its western Xinjiang region, sent a delegation to observe the exercises, news agencies quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying.

Russia has battled with a separatist insurgency in Chechnya for more than a decade, and the violence increasingly has afflicted other regions in the impoverished and largely Muslim North Caucasus.