Fake Russian invasion causes panic in Georgia

A local television channel sparks panic by broadcasting a fake report announcing Russia had launched an invasion and the country's president was dead.

Outraged Georgians today criticised a local television channel that sparked panic by broadcasting a faked report announcing that Russia had launched an invasion and the country's president was dead. The Georgian opposition condemned the news programme as a state-sponsored stunt aimed at smearing President Mikheil Saakashvili's critics while the president himself added to the furore by appearing to defend the broadcast.

The report, aired last night on privately owned Imedi television, said Russian tanks were headed for the capital Tbilisi, Mr Saakashvili had been killed and that some opposition leaders had sided with invading forces. "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," Mr Saakashvili said in televised remarks.

Local news agencies said the programme provoked widespread alarm, a record number of calls to emergency services and multiple incidents of heart attacks and fainting, though officials today said no deaths had been reported. The report showed footage taken from the August 2008 war that saw Russian troops pour into Georgia and bomb targets across the country. 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.

Opposition leader Nino Burjanadze - who was among those the report claimed had joined forces with Russia - said the news programme was government-sponsored propaganda. "This government's treatment of its own people is outrageous. I am sure that every second of this programme was agreed with Mr Saakashvili. Many people suffered psychological trauma," Ms Burjanadze, a former speaker of parliament who heads the Democratic Movement-United Georgia party, said.

"Every word about me was malicious slander and I will sue both Imedi television and the authorities," she said. Georgia's opposition has accused the government of using national television networks including Imedi, which is run by a close Mr Saakashvili ally, to smear government critics. Government officials denied any advance knowledge of the report and denounced it as irresponsible. "The opposition is creating a myth that this programme was agreed with the authorities and trying to use that myth to its own ends," the head of Georgia's National Security Council, Eka Tkeshelashvili, said.

"Of course this is completely untrue. This programme was an extremely unpleasant surprise to the authorities," she said. Mr Saakashvili said the report was not aimed at insulting Mrs Burjanadze's "dignity" but he nonetheless lashed out at her recent meetings with senior officials in Moscow, including the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. "Those who are shaking hands with people who have Georgian blood on their hands will never be respected," Mr Saakashvili said.

Georgia's National Communications Commission, which regulates television broadcasts, said it had launched an investigation into whether the incident violated Georgian law and that measures might be taken against the channel. Imedi apologised for airing the fake programme. Officials in Russia were also quick to denounce the report as a government-organised provocation. "Through lies and shocking provocations Mr 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," Russia's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin told the Interfax news agency.

Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 in response to a Georgian military attempt to retake the Moscow-backed rebel region of South Ossetia. After occupying swathes of territory, Russian forces later mostly withdrew into South Ossetia and another breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, which Moscow has recognised as independent states. * AFP