June 12, 2018 / 11:31 AM / 10 months ago

Brexit campaigner Banks says Russian meetings 'no issue' in the past

British businessman Arron Banks in Doncaster, northern Britain September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Yates

LONDON (Reuters) - Arron Banks, a British businessman who campaigned for Brexit, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that his contacts with Russians had not been an issue before Britain’s relations with the Kremlin soured.

The committee is quizzing Banks about his possible ties to Russia, after the Sunday Times said his ties to the country went further and deeper than he had previously disclosed.

Banks, who financed the Leave.EU campaign, said that at the time when he and his associate Andy Wigmore met Russian Embassy officials before the 2016 referendum, contact with them was not regarded as an issue.

“What I’m saying is we’ve now got a full-scale Russian witch hunt going on. Now, before that all occurred, it was no issue,” he added.

Relations between London and Moscow have deteriorated sharply since Britain accused Russia of being behind the poisoning with nerve agent of a former Russian spy in the city of Salisbury in March.

Britain has said it has seen no evidence of Russian interference in the vote, but as part of a broader inquiry into “fake news,” lawmakers on the media committee are investigating whether the country tried to influence public opinion before the referendum.

Wigmore told the committee on Tuesday that he had requested the meeting with the Russian officials.

“I asked to meet them,” he said. “We met them at a UKIP conference and we thought ... it would be quite a nice thing to go and chat to them.”

Referring to the London ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, he said: “I’ve met him and his people in the diplomatic community many times - that’s what you do.”

Reporting by Alistair Smout and Sarah Young; editing by Stephen Addison

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