Georgia was thrown into panic on Saturday night when a local television news programme broadcast a hoax claiming that the Russian Army had invaded and killed President Mikhail Saakashvili.
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The false report by broadcaster Imedi Media, Georgia’s privately-owned third channel, brought immediate fears that the brief and bloody 2008 war between Russia and Georgia had restarted.
Imedi, which later apologised for the prank, said the broadcast was to show how events might have unfolded had the president really been killed.
The false report, which claimed a Russian-installed government had taken power, brought widespread anger.
The FT reported that opposition leaders accused Imedi, which is run by a close ally of Saakashvili, of running state propaganda and ‘creating an artificial atmosphere of hysteria’ahead of local elections in May.
Saakashvili said he was bewildered by the report which claimed Nino Burjanadze, the Georgian opposition leader, had set up a ‘people’s government’with several army units defecting to the join the Russians.
The 30-minute Kronik news programme contained a single reference from its presenter, the FT said, saying it would present ‘an imitation’of a possible threat from Russia, however no other warnings about the nature of the item were shown during the broadcast.
The broadcast brought back memories of Russian tanks and troops and advancing into the former Soviet Republic in August 2008 after the Georgian army attacked breakaway factions in the republic of South Ossetia.