BHUBANESWAR, India (Reuters) - Indian police shot dead 20 stone-throwing sandalwood smugglers on Tuesday during the biggest operation for years to stamp out trafficking of the rare commodity, law-enforcement authorities said.
Opposition politicians and human rights activists challenged the report, maintaining that those killed in the incident in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh were only unarmed labourers and calling for an investigation.
Andhra Pradesh Police Chief J.V. Ramudu told reporters that a dozen-strong police task force had come under a hail of stones launched by around 100 stone-throwing smugglers who were also brandishing axes, sickles and other sharp-edged weapons.
Police were forced to fire back in self-defence, he said.
Ramudu said nine smugglers were killed in the Chitoor district and 11 in a second clash a kilometre (half a mile) away. All 20 were from the adjacent state of Tamil Nadu.
Human Rights Forum, a regional advocacy group, said the protesters were only unarmed labourers and demanded an investigation. “We think it was a fake encounter. Police liquidated them in cold blood and then concocted the story of an exchange of fire,” forum general secretary V.S. Krishna said.
Andhra Pradesh is home to stocks of red sandalwood, whose felling, transport and sale is prohibited in India but which is highly prized for furniture in China and Japan.
Last year state authorities created a task force comprising police and forest officers to crack down on the smuggling and by the end of 2014 had arrested more than 500 people.
India’s most wanted sandalwood smuggler, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan, was shot dead in a gunbattle in 2004 but since then smaller gangs have sprung up. Most of the wood has been smuggled out through northeastern India into Myanmar.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam wrote to his Andhra Pradesh counterpart asking for a quick investigation.
“There are laws to take action against those cutting and stealing from the forest, but firing and killing is totally unjustified,” said V. Gopalsamy, a leader of the opposition Tamil Nadu-based MDMK party.
Reporting by Jatin Dash; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Mark Heinrich