The president of Georgia was in on the TV hoax that panicked the nation Saturday night with a fake news program that Russia had invaded, according to voices supposedly of station executives on a telephone recording posted on a Web site.
But in another telephone conversation recording posted on the same site, purportedly of President Mikheil Saakashvili himself, the president says the station must include something on-screen during the fake report to indicate to viewers that what they were seeing was not true.
The broadcast, on a pro-government station, has fired up opposition leaders, who accused Saakashvili of recklessly exploiting people's fears to try to hold on to power.
The first recording, which surfaced Monday evening, was purportedly a conversation between the head of the private TV station Imedi, the country's third most popular, which aired the fake news report, and his news director.
On it, the voice of the supposed deputy tells her boss it would be illegal to run the startling segment without a graphic warning that it was a simulation.
"[Misha] told me, 'Oh no, if we do that then the whole essence would be lost,'" the supposed voice of station chief Giorgi Arveladze responds, using a nickname for the Georgian president.
Arveladze, a former politician and Saakashvili supporter, and news manager Eka Tsamalashvili both denied that conversation took place.
The station manager told Georgian TV that it was snippets of different conversations edited together, and he blamed Russia's special services.
In the second recording, posted anonymously to the same site the next day, a voice that sounds like Saakashvili tells his culture minister that even though the fake scenario was something that could very possibly play out in real life, "they should have simply warned people somewhere down the bottom [of the screen] that this was a simulation."
"It really sounds like [Saakashvili's] voice," Ketevan Khachidze, editor-in-chief of The Georgian Times, told ABC News.
Neither of the recordings have been verified, but the Georgian opposition jumped on the first as evidence that Saakashvili was behind Saturday's chaos.
The president's office hasn't commented beyond earlier calling the notion of government involvement "absurd."
The fake half-hour segment Saturday night aired when a news program called "Kronika" normally does.
It began with a disclaimer by the anchor that what viewers were about to see was not real, but many people either missed the announcement or joined part way through, and without anything on the screen to tell them they were viewing a simulation, assumed the invasion was really happening.
Scenes of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia, fighter jets dropping bombs and President Barack Obama condemning the attack in a fake Georgian voiceover sent the country into a panic.
There were numerous reports of a spike in calls to the emergency services for heart failure and fainting. The Interfax news agency cited a Maestro TV report Tuesday that a 50-year-old villager died from the heart attack he suffered Saturday.
For any Georgian watching, it was a vivid reminder of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. Tension between the two countries has remained high since then.
After the show, the anchor apologized for the chaos, saying they simply were trying to show what "the worst day in Georgian history would look like."
Opposition parties, who were targeted in the piece, furiously rallied Sunday, accusing Saakashvili of being behind it. The Russian foreign ministry also charged that Georgian authorities were involved, calling the report "irresponsible and immoral."
On the first recording that emerged Monday evening, the purported voice of news director Eka Tsamalashvili repeatedly protests the decision to not put a graphic disclaimer on the screen.
"There is a statute which plainly says that it is prohibited to incite unfounded panic," she says. "It would be better if we write that this is some kind of mock-up."
"Yesterday, Misha talked to me," the alleged voice of Arveladze responds, saying that he was told an on-screen warning would sap the impact of the piece.
The recording that surfaced Tuesday features defensive language purportedly from Saakashvili, telling minister of culture Nika Rurua, "Those idiots did not warn [viewers]."
Saakashvili wrote on his Web site that the program was "harmful." However, he said Sunday that what was "more unpleasant is the fact that the report was maximally close to what could happen or what the enemy of Georgia has in mind."
Western diplomats have roundly criticized the faux report. The U.S. ambassador to Georgia called it "profoundly alarming."