The forest area in Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh where 20 alleged sandalwood smugglers were shot dead by the police
Chennai: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has written to his Tamil Nadu counterpart O Panneerselvam assuring him of a speedy investigation into the controversial killing of 20 alleged red sandalwood smugglers in a police operation in Chittoor this week. All the men killed were from Tamil Nadu.
Chandrababu Naidu said in his letter that the government has ordered a magisterial inquiry and provided "all necessary assistance in completing the process of delivery of dead bodies of the deceased to their relatives in time."
Mr Naidu was replying to Mr Panneerselvam's letter two days ago in which he sought a "credible and speedy inquiry" saying, "While it is possible that these persons may have been engaged in illegal activities, the occurrence of such high casualties in the operation raises concerns whether the task force personnel acted with adequate restraint."
Like the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, political parties and civil rights activists have asked why efforts were not made to apprehend the alleged smugglers rather than kill them. Furious activists have alleged a "fake encounter" and moved the Hyderabad High Court.
The High Court has asked the state police for a detailed report on Monday. The Supreme Court too has admitted a public interest litigation.
Talking to NDTV, Andhra Pradesh forest minister B Gopalakrishna Reddy justified the police action today, saying, "They were smugglers not woodcutters... those killed were habitual offenders, we have proof."
Andhra Pradesh alleges that the 20 men were smuggling precious red sandalwood and were killed after they attacked a police task force that came upon them on Tuesday morning. They claim the police team was outnumbered and opened fire in self-defence.
But activists pointing to the manner in which the men were killed. Some of the bodies have burn marks; others show bullet injuries in the chest and head, which activists say challenge the police claim of self-defence. Seven policemen have been reported injured.
Witnesses have alleged that some of those killed were pulled off a bus by policemen from Andhra Pradesh. One man has said that he was travelling with a group of seven men and missed the bus they were on. He alleges that when he called one of them later to ascertain their location, he learnt that they had been taken off their bus and were at a police station.
The man said he later learnt that they had been killed in the police action. The killings have sparked massive protests in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Andhra Pradesh police say red sanders smuggling involves big stakes; that after white sandalwood smuggling virtually denuded forests in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the smuggling mafia has turned to AP in the last 10-15 years. "All this campaign is an attempt to demoralise police personnel on the field," IG law and order Harish Kumar Gupta told NDTV.