At least 20 smugglers of red sanders -- a rare wood with huge demand in the international market -- were gunned down by police on Tuesday in two gunfights in Andhra Pradesh's Chittoor district, police said.
The police opened fire after they came under attack by the smugglers in Seshachalam forest in two places within a radius of one km in Chandragiri mandal of Chittoor, about 500 km from Hyderabad.
Deputy Inspector General of Police (Task Force) M. Kanta Rao told IANS that over 100 smugglers and labourers helping them attacked policemen, forcing them to open fire in self defence.
"They attacked task force personnel with sickles and other sharp-edged weapons and the police had to open fire in self defence," he told IANS.
He said the incident happened between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.
While 11 men were killed at Pacchinodu Banda, nine were gunned down near Etagunta.
"We are ascertaining the number of policemen injured," the officer said.
The task force and forest officials continued joint combing operations to look for the remaining smugglers and labourers who escaped in the forests.
Police sounded an alert in adjoining districts to prevent the smugglers from escaping.
The officer said they were yet to identify those killed but they were all believed to be from neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Police and forest department personnel launched joint operations on Monday night following a tip-off about the smugglers entering the forests.
The security personnel acted after receiving information that trees were being felled.
Director General of Police J.V. Ramudu met Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu in Hyderabad to brief him about the incidents. The chief minister reviewed the situation with the police chief and also spoke to top officials of Chittoor district.
Classified as endangered in International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, red sanders fetches Rs.25 lakh per tonne in the international market. It is mainly used in aphrodisiac drugs and for making musical instruments and furniture.
In Andhra Pradesh, red sanders grows mainly in the Seshachalam hill ranges spread across Kadapa, Chittoor and Kurnool districts in the Rayalaseema region and parts of Nellore district. The area under red sanders is estimated to be 4.67 lakh hectares.
The forests in recent months witnessed bloody clashes between red sanders smugglers and police but Tuesday's clash was the biggest.
Two forest officials were killed and three were injured in the attack by the red sanders smugglers in Seshachalam forests of the same district in December 2013.
It was after this incident that the state government formed a Special Task Force to counter the smugglers.
In May last year, police killed three smugglers in Chittoor district.
Over 3,000 smugglers were arrested and 2,025 tonnes of red sander was seized during 2013.