A small team of British armed forces personnel has been deployed to Poland as part of growing tension at the border with Belarus.
The announcement by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was followed an hour later by confirmation that Royal Air Force fighter jets had to be scrambled on Friday to respond to two military aircraft from Russia – an ally of Belarus – approaching a “UK area of interest”.
The interception and deployment comes amid tension over an influx of migrants at the border between Poland and Belarus.
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.”
The PA news agency understands the deployment is limited to providing engineering support.
It comes as the MoD said an unspecified number of Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, supported by a Voyager refuelling aircraft from RAF Brize Norton, intercepted two Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers.
Officials said the fighters escorted the Russian aircraft out of a British area of interest, and that the bombers did not enter UK airspace.
The Russian Ministry of Defence said on Thursday that its aircraft, of the same type as were intercepted on Friday, had conducted a patrol over Belarusian airspace.
The European Union has accused Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, of encouraging illegal border crossings as a “hybrid attack” to retaliate against the bloc’s sanctions on his 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 envisaging close political and military ties, with Moscow sending in paratroopers to the neighbouring country in a show of support for its ally amid the border dispute.
Russia said that, as part of joint war games, its troops parachuted in Belarus’s Grodno region, which borders Poland, before being flown back.
Mr Lukashenko has stressed the need to boost military co-operation between Moscow and Minsk in the face of what he has described as aggressive action by Nato allies.
On Friday, Nato said it “strongly condemns” the “irregular migration artificially created by Belarus”.
“These callous actions endanger the lives of vulnerable people,” it said in a statement.
“We will remain vigilant against the risk of further escalation and provocation by Belarus at its borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and will continue to monitor the implications for the security of the alliance.”
EU leaders have put increasing pressure on airlines to stop taking people from the Middle East to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Thousands of migrants have crossed into EU member nations Poland, Lithuania and Latvia since the summer, though many thousands have also been kept from entering or pushed back.