BRUSSELS -- Suddenly and shockingly, Belgium came to an end.
State television broke into regular programming late Wednesday 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 Belgians had already fallen for the hoax.
Frantic viewers flooded the call center of RTBF, the station that aired the stunt. Embassies called Belgian authorities to find out what was going on, while foreign journalists scrambled to get confirmation.
"Ambassadors who were worried asked what they had to tell their capitals," said Anne-Marie Lizin, the Senate president. "This fiction was seen as a reality and it created a catastrophic image of the country."
RTBF defended the program, saying it showed the importance of debate on the future of Belgium. But the network won few friends.
Even Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister from neighboring Luxembourg, was angry and let it be known at the opening of the European Union summit. "This is not the kind of issue you play around with," he said.
RTBF's phony newscast reported that the "Flemish parliament has unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders" and that King Albert and Queen Paola had left on the first plane available.
The broadcast showed jubilant demonstrators outside the legislature waving the yellow-and-black flag with the Flemish Lion. A small crowd of monarchists rallied outside the royal palace waving the Belgian flag.
Reporting that the royal family fled did not go down well at the palace, which said in a statement the hoax was in "bad taste."
"It is totally unacceptable," said Vice Premier Didier Reynders.
The linguistic demons pitting Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north against French-speaking Wallonia in the south have been mostly quiet for the past two decades, ever since far-reaching autonomy was granted in the 1980s.