The UK has deployed "a small team" of armed forces to Poland amid the ongoing border crisis with Belarus after an influx of migrants attempting to enter the EU triggered a military build-up by the two opposing sides.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said on Friday it had deployed the soldiers to Poland "to address the ongoing situation at the Belarus border.”The MoD said: "The UK and Poland have a long history of friendship and are Nato allies.
"A small team of UK armed forces personnel have deployed following an agreement with the Polish government to explore how we can provide engineering support to address the ongoing situation at the Belarus border."It is understood the deployment is currently limited to engineering support.
The MoD also said on Friday the Royal Air Force scrambled jets to respond to two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers “approaching the UK area of interest”.
The Russian Defence Ministry said its troops will parachute from Il-76 transport planes into Belarus’s Grodno region, which borders Poland and the two armies will carry out combined military drills.
In the past few days, thousands of migrants - mostly from the Middle East - have attempted to enter Poland from Belarus, creating a major diplomatic crisis between the two countries, as well as with the EU.
Poland has accused Belarus of deliberately creating the crisis by directing migrants to the border in response to EU sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko's autocratic regime.
In response to the influx of migrants, Poland has sent thousands of soldiers, military equipment and riot police to fortify the border with razor wire, with most official crossings now closed.
With access to Poland now effectively impossible, makeshift migrant camps have appeared on the border.
There is little access to basic goods and temperatures have been as low as 0C in recent days.
Several deaths have been reported.
Poland has received strong words of support from Nato, the US, the EU and individual member states, who have all condemned Belarus's actions.
Nato said on Friday it “strongly condemns” the “irregular migration artificially created by Belarus”.
In a statement, Nato said it condemns the "instrumentalisation of irregular migration artificially created by Belarus as part of hybrid actions targeted against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia for political purposes.
They added: "Nato allies call on Belarus to cease these actions, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law.”
Belarus said that as part of the drills - which will also involve their own air defence assets, helicopter gunships and other forces - they will practice targeting enemy scouts and illegal armed formations, along with other tasks.
Earlier this week, Moscow sent its nuclear-capable strategic bombers on patrol missions over Belarus for two days.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, told reporters at the group's headquarters in New York that the flights came in response to a massive build-up on the Polish-Belarusian border.
The European Union has accused Belarus of encouraging illegal border crossings as a "hybrid attack" to retaliate against EU sanctions on Mr Lukashenko's government for its crackdown on domestic protests after his disputed 2020 re-election.
Belarus denies the allegations but says it will no longer stop refugees and migrants from trying to enter the EU.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry accused Poland on Thursday of an “unprecedented” military build-up on the border, saying migration control did not warrant the concentration of 15,000 troops backed by tanks, air defence assets and other weapons.
Russia and Belarus have a union agreement binding them together as close political and military allies.
Mr Lukashenko has stressed the need to boost military co-operation in the face of what he has described as aggressive actions by Nato allies.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Civil Aviation Authority is halting airline ticket sales to Iraqi, Syrian and Yemeni citizens wanting to travel to Belarus.
EU leaders have put increasing pressure on airlines to stop taking people from the Middle East to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Thousands of asylum-seekers also have crossed illegally into EU member nations Lithuania and Latvia from Belarus since the summer.
Lithuania recently declared a state of emergency on its border in response to the influx of migrants.