Andhra Pradesh forest minister B Gopala Krishna Reddy today said the state government has evidence that the 20 men killed in police action in Chittoor this week "were habitual offenders" in trading red sandalwood illegally.
"They were smugglers, not woodcutters," the minister told NDTV, alleging that some of those killed had police records. He pointed out that one man, Govindan Rajendran, had been arrested in May 2013 for allegedly smuggling red sanders and was released on bail.
The state police is scanning 2000 cases and records of over 12,000 people to compare with those who were killed in Tuesday's encounter to establish criminal antecedents. They have also sent teams to Tamil Nadu.
According to the Andhra Pradesh police, all the men belong to those areas in Tamil Nadu where notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan used to once operate. They say that in the last decade, the more common white sandalwood that grows in neighbouring states has been heavily foraged, bringing the red sandalwood in Andhra Pradesh to the attention of smugglers.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has written to his Tamil Nadu counterpart O Panneerselvam, informing him that a magisterial probe has been ordered. He was replying to Mr Panneerselvam's letter seeking a "credible and speedy inquiry."
Mr Panneerselvam has questioned whether "the task force personnel acted with adequate restraint." He asked why the Andhra Pradesh police had not attempted to apprehend the men rather than kill them.
The Andhra Pradesh forest minister said the police task force was outnumbered. "If we had more police force, we would have captured them; they were in big numbers," Mr Reddy said.
A senior Andhra Pradesh police officer told NDTV, "All this is an attempt to demoralise police personnel in the field."