Brussels, Belgium (AP) -- It may have been a practical joke with a practical purpose but few, if any, people in Belgium are laughing.
State television broke into regular programming last night with an urgent bulletin: the Dutch-speaking half of the country had declared independence and the king and queen had fled. Grainy pictures from the military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane.
Only after a half hour did the station flash the message: "This Is Fiction."
It was too late. Many frantic Belgians had already fallen for the hoax.
The hoax struck a nerve in Belgium, where there has traditionally been tension between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south.
The network defended the program, saying it showed the importance of debate on the future of Belgium.
Copyright 2006 by the Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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