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Fake Russian invasion broadcast sparks Georgian panic

From Ivan Watson CNN
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Broadcast sparks invasion fear
  • Television station in Georgia broadcasts mock report about Russian invasion
  • Station later began scrolling text, apologizing for spreading panic among viewers
  • Russian tanks, troops and armored vehicles advanced into Georgia in August 2008

(CNN) -- A television station in Georgia triggered a panic when it broadcast a mock half-hour report about a Russian invasion of the country.

Emotions are still raw in many parts of Georgia after Russian tanks, troops and armored vehicles advanced into the former Soviet Republic in August 2008.

That invasion was triggered after Georgian troops attacked pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. In the fighting that ensued, each side offered conflicting figures on how many people died.

On Saturday night, the pro-government Imedi TV in Georgia broadcast what it called a "simulation" of what a fresh invasion would look like. And the broadcast ended with a note that the events in it were not real.

However, the show did not run any on-screen notes during the half-hour broadcast to alert viewers that what they were watching was not real. Consequently many were alarmed.

The show used archives sound bites from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as footage of Georgians fleeing the 2008 conflict.

Throughout the show, the anchor provided "updates" that Russian forces had bombed the airport in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and a military base in the country.

It reported that four Georgians had been killed and six wounded near South Ossetia.

About two hours later, the station began scrolling a text, apologizing for spreading panic among viewers.

Manana Manjgaladze, the spokeswoman for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, also made an unexpected live appearance at Imedi's studio to apologize to viewers for the false alarm.

Patriarch Ilia II, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, condemned the fake report.

"This kind of experiment is a crime to our people and to humanity," he said in a sermon before thousands of worshippers at Sunday Mass in Tbilisi's Holy Trinity Cathedral.

The controversial broadcast spread fear and panic among residents of Akhali Tserovani, a recently constructed colony of cottages for thousands of Georgians who fled their homes during the 2008 war.

"I was afraid. It wasn't right of them to do it," said Tamuna Okhadze, a refugee who held her one-and-a-half-year-old son Lasha, who was born after the war.

"People were in panic," she said. "Some people started getting dressed to flee to Tbilisi. People wondered where they should hide their children."

Lali Tskitashvili, a mother of three, said she couldn't see the broadcast because she didn't have a satellite dish that received Imedi TV. But she says she received panicked phone calls from friends in Tbilisi, asking if she had seen Russian tanks.

"People here ran out into the street and asked each other 'what's happening?'" she said. "It was a provocation."

President Saakashvili was "very concerned and alarmed of what he saw on TV," said Manjgaladze, the spokeswoman.

"I understand the position of the journalists," she said in a statement. "I understand that it is possible to make such projects, but it mustn't impact the population of the country. No one must pour oil on the fire and cause alarm among the people. This is a very sensitive topic."