EU urges Georgia not to aggravate Russia tensions

BRUSSELS Wed Mar 17, 2010 3:14pm EDT

A man passes by a logo of Imedi TV station in Tbilisi March 15, 2010. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

A man passes by a logo of Imedi TV station in Tbilisi March 15, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has urged Georgia's government to avoid exacerbating regional tensions after a Georgian television station broadcast a fake news report about Russian forces heading for the capital Tbilisi.

Saturday, Georgia's pro-government Imedi TV aired a 20-minute primetime report saying Russian tanks were advancing on Tbilisi after former allies of President Mikheil Saakashvili called on Moscow to intervene in political unrest.

"I am concerned by recent reports of a hoax news item in Tbilisi," Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive European Commission, told a news briefing after talks in Brussels with Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri.

"I want to urge Georgia to refrain from any activities which could exacerbate local or regional tensions."

Gilauri told the news conference the TV station was privately owned and the broadcast would be looked into by Georgia's independent telecommunications commission.

The broadcast, which also reported that Saakashvili had been killed, caused panic in Georgia 18 months after it fought a five-day war with its ex-Soviet neighbor Russia.

The broadcast carried a hoax warning at the beginning and end of the transmission, but many viewers missed it.

Public alarm at the content has given way to accusations over the politics behind the broadcast, which Imedi said was a warning over contacts between opposition leaders and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The opposition said the government was behind the report on the station, which is run by a close ally of Saakashvili.

The president's spokeswoman said Monday the accusation was "absurd." But state manipulation of media remains a serious concern for Georgia's Western backers.

Barroso said conduct of local elections due in May would be "critically important" for relations between Georgia and the European Union and said Georgia needed to pursue further democratic reforms, including those on media freedom.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Noah Barkin)

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