HYDERABAD - At least 20 people were killed when police opened fire Tuesday on loggers who attacked them with axes and stones in an area of southern India known for sandalwood smuggling.

Deputy Inspector General M. Kantha Rao said his officers had opened fire “in self-defence” after challenging a group of over 100 suspected smugglers in a remote forest in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

A local forestry department official told AFP separately that the loggers used axes, sticks and stones to attack officers from a newly-formed anti-smuggling task force who were searching the forest. “Our police party warned them to hand over the logs,” Rao told AFP.

“They were accompanied by forest officials as well. But the smugglers refused to hand over the logs. “Ultimately in self-defence the police opened fire on the smugglers and found nine bodies in one position, and 11 bodies in another,” he said.

Rao, who heads the task force set up to combat the smuggling of sandalwood, said six or seven police officers had been wounded during the clash in Chittoor district.

He said his officers had come under attack in the past from loggers in the forests of Chittoor, which is around 480 kilometres (300 miles) north of the state capital Hyderabad and is known for its red sandalwood trees.

The Hindu newspaper reported on Friday that Rao had sought approval from state authorities to open fire on smugglers.

Red sandalwood is highly sought after in neighbouring China and other parts of East Asia, mainly for making furniture.

India banned its sale in 2000 after the tree was placed on an endangered list, but illegal logging is rampant. Most of the wood is smuggled out through northeast India into Myanmar.

One of India’s most notorious bandits, Veerappan, was accused of smuggling sandalwood worth $22 million before he was shot dead in a gunbattle with Tamil Nadu police in 2004.

M. Ravi Kumar, the head forestry official for Chittoor, said 18 of those killed on Tuesday were labourers and the other two were “leaders” of smuggling operations.

Rights activists in Andhra Pradesh said there had been frequent clashes between police and loggers in the area.

V.S. 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.

“We have been to Chittoor on a fact-finding mission for an earlier alleged encounter, and we found out that it was not an exchange of fire case but one-sided firing by the special task force of the police,” he said.

“They surrounded the workers deep in the forest, having every opportunity to take them into custody, but instead fired straight away, killing several of these workers.”

The loggers were often poor migrant workers from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, he said.