Two men whose accounts suggest that the police in Andhra Pradesh staged the killing of 20 alleged red sanders smugglers last week recorded their statements before the National Human Rights Commission today.
The men, who have come out officially with their version for the first time, claim that at least 12 of those shot dead were pulled off a bus by Andhra policemen and arrested hours before the controversial encounter in the forests of Chittoor last Tuesday.
After spending four hours speaking to the men, the rights body ordered police protection for them and their families. It also asked for the names of all police officers and forest personnel involved.
The Andhra Pradesh police claim that the men were notorious smugglers of red sandalwood or red sanders and were killed after they attacked a police team. They claim that the team was outnumbered and fired in self-defence.
All the men were from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Activists have raised questions about the police version pointing at the state of the bodies. 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.
The two witnesses claim they survived because they were not among the villagers taken away by the Andhra police that day.
One of them says he was seated separately, next to a woman, on a bus from Tiruttani in Tamil Nadu to Renigunta in Andhra Pradesh while the others from his village were pulled out.
The other man has said that he was travelling with a group of seven men and missed the bus because he went for a drink.
He alleges that when he called one of his companions, he learnt that they had been taken off the bus and were at a police station. He said he later found out that they had been shot dead.
Andhra Pradesh forest minister B Gopala Krishna Reddy has said there is evidence that men who were killed were "habitual offenders" in trading red sandalwood illegally.