(RFE/RL) -- Georgians reacted with fear and in some cases panic to a mock television report that claimed that invading Russian tanks had crossed the border and were heading for Tbilisi, and that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was dead.
The report, carried on the night of March 13 by the privately run -- but staunchly pro-government -- Imedi television station, said key members of the political opposition had thrown in their lot with the Kremlin, naming former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze and former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli in particular.
Both Burjanadze and Noghaideli have made recent trips to Moscow, prompting Saakashvili to accuse them of "shaking hands with people who have Georgian blood on their hands."
The opposition reacted furiously to the report, calling it outrageous and irresponsible.
"I can't imagine any normal country where things like that could be possible, where somebody could call you a traitor or an agent of another country without any response," Burjanadze said.
"And I am more than sure that Georgian people will make a choice for stability, for unity of the country, for democracy. And for that we need to change this criminal, irresponsible government."
Burjanadze and other opposition figures denounced the program as government-sponsored propaganda that had traumatized many people.
The Alliance for Georgia, an opposition group led by former UN ambassador Irakli Alasania, accused the government of "initiating artificial hysteria" and turning television into a "source of disinformation and a tool of life-threatening propaganda."
Heart Attacks Rise
Reports from Tbilisi said people rushed out of doors when they saw the program, mobile phone circuits became overloaded, and -- according to the emergency services -- there was a marked increase in heart attacks.
The head of Georgia's influential Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, condemned the report, calling it an "abomination." An Orthodox priest in Tbilisi, Father David, denounced the hoax in comments to Reuters television.
"When the situation is so tense it is a criminal act to make jokes on these topics and they should answer for that, answer through the courts," he said.
Two pages on the social networking website Facebook emerged after the broadcast, attracting more than 6,500 fans in less than one day.
The mock report comes just 18 months after Russia actually did invade Georgia, and some of the film footage came from that conflict.
Imedi, which is owned by a friend of Saakashvili, carried a brief notice before the report saying it was a "simulation" of possible events, but the report itself appeared genuine and carried no warning it was a fake.
The head of Imedi, Giorgi Arveladze, later apologized for the way the report was presented but said he has no intention of resigning over the incident. He said the goal of the report was not to cause panic but to show how events might unfold.
Government officials denied any knowledge of the report, calling it irresponsible. Saakashvili's spokeswoman, Manana Manjgalazde, visited the television staff with a personal message of caution from the president on March 14.
"The president sent me here to tell the [TV staff] that when such a program is being made, despite the fact that our country is still subjected to certain threats, there should be not only a verbal warning in advance but also a special on-screen banner saying it is a 'simulation' [of possible events]," Manjgalazde said.
Burjanadze said her Democratic Movement-United Georgia party would sue Imedi television and the authorities over the report.