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Russia mounts massive invasion of Georgia during spoof broadcast

Russia's army mounted a massive invasion of Georgia over the weekend, its planes bombed the capital Tbilisi, and President Mikheil Saakashvili was assassinated.

None of this actually happened, but it was the scenario that played out in a terrifyingly realistic report on Georgian television over the weekend, causing widespread panic in the country.

Less than two years after the very real war between Russia and Georgia, thousands of viewers believed that history was repeating itself – at least for half an hour

The programme, which aired at prime time on the Imedi television channel, described opposition politicians protesting the results of elections, Russia taking advantage of internal chaos, and – after a manufactured "incident" in the breakaway region of South Ossetia – beginning an invasion of Georgia.

Beforehand, the anchor had made a brief statement that what followed would be a "simulation", but during the programme itself, as pictures were shown of the Russian Army flooding into Georgia, there was no on-screen caption explaining that the events were not real.

At one point, the action even moved to Washington, where viewers were told that Barack Obama was making a live statement. The footage showed the US President, alongside his number two, Joe Biden, at the White House, as a dubbed voiceover falsely claimed he was calling for an end to the "Russian aggression".

As the report aired, panicked Georgians called friends and relatives. Mobile phone networks crashed for several minutes, and there were reports of cinemas emptying as frantic parents called their children back home. Local news agencies reported an increased number of calls to the emergency services from people suffering heart attacks.

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Then, as the programme ended, the action moved to a studio, where assembled guests discussed what they had just seen, and it was made clear that Georgia had not been invaded at all. The head of Imedi later apologised for any stress caused.

At the very least, it was a foolish stunt in a country that remembers the war of August 2008 all too well, but opposition politicians in the country suspect more sinister motives. In recent weeks, two opposition leaders, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Nogaideli, have visited Moscow, the first by Georgian politicians since the 2008 conflict. They met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and called for the restoration of Tbilisi's relations with Moscow.

Yesterday they were swift to accuse President Saakashvili's government of being behind the news item, which appeared to lay the blame for the supposed invasion at the door of opposition forces.

"Full responsibility for the preparation and the results of the report lie with the Georgian authorities, which have practically monopolised all television space in order to wage information terror on their own people," the opposition Alliance for Georgia said in a statement. A spokesperson for Ms Burjanadze said that her party was planning a lawsuit against Imedi.

Mr Saakashvili admitted the television station should have run the report with a caption explaining it was a simulation, but insisted the events featured could really happen. "The major unpleasant thing about yesterday's report – and I want people to understand this well – was that it's extremely close to what could really happen, and to what Georgia's enemy keeps in mind," he said.

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