Eight villagers, including 3 children, shot dead in central India

RAIPUR, India (AFP) - Indian police reported on Monday that eight villagers, including three children, died in crossfire between security forces and Maoist rebels, but opposition politicians said the victims were "massacred".

A policeman also died in the incident on Saturday in the Edasmeta area of Bijapur district, 550 kilometres south of capital Raipur, the chief of anti-Maoist operations in central Chhattisgarh state said.

"Police recovered eight bodies after an exchange of fire between Maoists and security forces. The bodies of three boys with bullet wounds were also found," Rajinder Vij told AFP.

"We suspect the villagers died in crossfire between security forces and the Maoists. One policeman was also killed," said Mr Vij, who alleged one of the dead was a "suspected Maoist" as police seized two rifles from the scene.

But the state's main opposition party accused security forces of killing "innocent" villagers in a "fake encounter", a term used in India to refer to illegal killings by security authorities where the victim is deliberately targeted.

The Chhattisgarh state government has ordered a judicial probe into the killings.

"The villagers were preparing for a ritual in the field before the start of sowing season when they were massacred," Congress spokesman Shailesh Nitin Trivedi said.

The incident is the latest in a simmering conflict between the left-wing insurgents and security forces in the rural areas of mainly central and eastern India.

Earlier this month, Maoist guerrillas killed three policemen in a night-time attack on a state-run broadcaster.

The government describes the Maoists, who say they are fighting for the rights of tribal people and landless farmers, as the country's most serious internal security threat.