India police say 20 dead after shootout with smugglers

HYDERABAD, India (AFP) - At least 20 people died in a gun battle between the police and alleged timber smugglers in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday, a local police chief said.

Deputy Inspector General M. Kantha Rao said his officers had opened fire "in self-defence" after challenging a group of over 100 suspected smugglers in a remote forest.

Our police party warned them to hand over the logs. They were accompanied by forest officials as well. But the smugglers refused to hand over the logs," he told AFP.

A local Forestry Department official told AFP separately that the loggers had attacked the police with axes, sticks and stones in two separate areas of the forest. "Ultimately in self-defence the police opened fire on the smugglers and found nine bodies in one position, and 11 bodies in another," Mr Rao said.

Mr Rao, who heads a state task force set up to combat the smuggling of sandalwood, said six or seven police officers had been wounded during the clash in Chittoor district, 480km north of the state capital Hyderabad.

Rights activists in Andhra Pradesh said there had been frequent clashes between the police and loggers in Chittoor over the smuggling of sandalwood, which is highly sought after in neighbouring China.

Mr V.S. Krishna, general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Human Rights Forum, said an earlier attack described by police as a gunbattle had turned out to be "one-sided firing" by the police.

Many of the victims of such incidents were poor migrant workers from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, he said.

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