A fake television report of a Russian invasion in Georgia has caused panic, sending worried Georgians rushing into the streets.
The newscast, aired Saturday night on privately owned Imedi television, said Russian tanks were headed for the capital Tbilisi and that Mikheil Saakashvili, the president, had been killed.
Local news agencies said the programme provoked widespread alarm and a record number of calls to emergency services. Multiple incidents of heart attacks and fainting also occurred but officials said on Sunday that no deaths had been reported.
A brief notice before the report said it was a “simulation” of possible events but the report itself appeared genuine and carried no warning it was a fake.
Using footage from Russian’s assault on Georgia in August 2008, the newscast said some Georgian opposition leaders had sided with the invading Russian forces.
It was interpreted as criticism of Saakashvili’s opponents who recently met Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, in Moscow and called for the two countries to restore ties.
Georgy Arveladze, head of Georgia Media Production Holding which owns the pro-government channel Imedi, told Reuters news agency that the aim was to show the “real threat” of how events might unfold.
Nino Burjanadze, an opposition politician who was among those said by the report to have joined forces with Russia, described the newscast as government-sponsored propaganda.
Burjanadze, who heads the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that the Saakashvili government has tried to intervene in television channels’ work.
“I am more than sure that everyone in Georgia believes that the government is standing behind this, because the government is controlling all TV in Georgia. Imedi is among them,” she said.
Government officials have denied any advance knowledge of the controversial programme and denounced it as irresponsible.
But Saakashvili added to the furore by appearing to defend the broadcast and by condemning Burjanadze’s recent meetings in Moscow.
“It was indeed a very unpleasant programme but the most unpleasant thing is that it is extremely close to what can happen and to what Georgia’s enemy has conceived,” Saakashvili said in televised remarks.
“Those who are shaking hands with people who have Georgian blood on their hands will never be respected.”
Imedi has apologised for airing the fake programme. Demonstrations against the channel were staged in Tbilisi on Sunday.
Officials in Russia were also quick to denounce the report as a government-organised provocation.
“Through lies and shocking provocations Saakashvili is continuing to set the brotherly Georgian and Russian peoples upon each other. This is a sick and dangerous man and his actions are criminal,” Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, told the Interfax news agency.
Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 after the Georgian military attempted to retake the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Both sides have blamed each other for starting the bloody five-day war.