Hyderabad/Chennai, April 7: Police shot dead 20 people, mainly from Tamil Nadu, in an Andhra Pradesh forest for allegedly smuggling precious red sanders wood, igniting charges of mass murder in Tamil Nadu.
The government and political parties in Tamil Nadu reacted angrily as it emerged that 12 of the dead were from Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts in the state and had gone to Andhra to fell trees and take away the rare wood. They were mostly poor tribals.
A rights activist in Chennai called the killings a massacre.
Police said they shot dead the 20 smugglers in Chittoor district early Tuesday after being attacked with sickles and other weapons in two places in Seshachalam forest, about 500 km from Hyderabad.
Deputy Inspector General of Police M. Kanta Rao told IANS that over 100 smugglers and labourers engaged in cutting down the trees had attacked police, forcing them to open fire in self defence.
Eleven people were killed at Pacchinodu Banda and nine near Etagunta. "We are ascertaining the number of policemen injured," Rao said.
Classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, red sanders fetch Rs.25 lakh a tonne abroad. It is used in aphrodisiac drugs and to make musical instruments and furniture.
In May 2014, police killed three smugglers in Chittoor district. Over 3,000 smugglers were arrested and 2,025 tonnes of red sanders were seized in 2013.
The People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) said the police personnel must be tried for murder.
"It is a massacre... planned murder by the Andhra Pradesh Police. They should be tried for murder," S. Balamurugan, general secretary of the PUCL Tamil Nadu unit, told IANS.
Balamurugan said that landless tribals from Tamil Nadu are lured by smugglers to cut the precious trees. The labourers got paid around Rs.300.
The Tamil Nadu government demanded a "credible enquiry" into the killings.
In a letter to his Andhra counterpart N. Chandrababu Naidu, Panneerselvam said: "I request you to kindly order a credible and speedy enquiry into the matter so that the facts are established and responsibility fixed for possible human rights violations.
"In case of any human rights violations, it is essential that action is taken against those who caused the deaths and appropriate compensation is paid to the families of the victims," he said.
DMK president and former chief minister M. Karunanidhi said the mass killing was worrying.
MDMK general secretary Vaiko demanded the dismissal of the police officials involved in the operation and said they should be charged with murder.
PMK founder S. Ramadoss said the killings cannot be justified. The smuggling of red sanders in Andhra Pradesh had been going on for years and the culprits should be apprehended and punished, not killed.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress also denounced the Andhra Pradesh Police. State Congress chief E.V.K.S. Elangovan demanded "a proper probe".
Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corp cancelled 60 buses from Chennai to various parts of Andhra Pradesh as a precaution.
Andhra officials said the police Task Force and forest officials continued to comb the forests for smugglers and labourers who reportedly escaped.
Police and forest department personnel launched joint operations on Monday night following a tip that smugglers had entered the forests.
In Andhra Pradesh, red sanders grow mainly in the Seshachalam hill ranges in Kadapa, Chittoor and Kurnool districts and in parts of Nellore. The area under red sanders is estimated to be 4.67 lakh hectares.
Red sanders helped Andhra Pradesh earn over Rs.1,000 crore from global auction last year.