"Such high casualty raises concerns about police restraint," wrote Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam to his counterpart, Andhra Pradesh's Chandrababu Naidu, asking for an investigation into the encounter. "While police have every right to arrest and prosecute offenders, shooting them dead like birds is unacceptable," said Vaiko, the chief of the MDMK party in Tamil Nadu.
Nine alleged red sandalwood smugglers were killed in one place and 11 in a second clash a kilometre away in Chittoor in Southern Andhra Pradesh.
Deputy Inspector General M Kantha Rao said his officers had opened fire "in self-defence" after they were attacked in the thick forests with stones, axes and knives, about 570 kilometres south of Hyderabad.
A magisterial inquiry has been ordered by the Chittoor District Collector.
VS 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 police. Many of the victims of such incidents were poor migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, he said.
A tonne of the rare red sandalwood or red sanders, as it is known, can fetch nearly Rs. 2 crore for the finest Grade 'A' quality in the international market. It has been declared an endangered tree.
A tough plan to combat the smuggling of red sandalwood was a major campaign promise of Chandrababu Naidu ahead of last year's election, which he won. He then formed a special task force, which has been given plenty of modern weapons and resources, to fight the red sandalwood mafia.