TIRUPATI/VELLORE:In a major crackdown on alleged red sanders smugglers and woodcutters, the Andhra Pradesh police early on Tuesday shot dead 20 of them, all natives of Tamil Nadu, in an ‘encounter’ deep inside the Seshachalam Reserve Forest in Andhra. Of the 20, eight were from Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai districts and four were from Vellore.
A team of police personnel belonging to Andhra Pradesh’s Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force (RSASTF) and Forest Department, who came ‘face to face’ with the smugglers and woodcutters during their combing operations, gunned them down in ‘self defence’.
The encounter, according to reliable sources, took place between 5 am and 6 am at Cheekamagulagunta and Eethamagulagunta areas in Chandragiri Mandal near Tirupati. The sources claimed that the RSASTF top brass had obtained shoot-at-sight orders from the government two days ago, apparently getting to know the movement of around 200 red sanders woodcutters in the forest. The operations were underway in the Seshachalam forest for the past two days.
Six from TN, among the 20 dead, have been identified. The dead included two international smugglers, said AP Home Minister Nimmakayuala China Rajappa. The deaths triggered protests in Tamil Nadu. By evening, irate people attacked AP buses arriving in Chennai.
The AP teams involved in the operation found hundreds of smugglers trying to fell trees, said RSASTF DIG M Kantha Rao. Though the police asked them to surrender, they started pelting stones causing injuries to policemen.
“They had no option but to protect themselves by opening fire. But, the firing led to a serious encounter as the smugglers tried to attack the police with an intention to kill,” he said.
“The remaining labourers and smugglers fled the spot after watching the death of their colleagues,” he said. According to the DIG, the task force teams were deployed in major locations of the Seshachalam forest area based on information received from the department sources in Tamil Nadu.
“Two days back we had information from our sources that smuggling activity was going on in the forest area. Acting on it, we deployed teams who traced the smugglers with the help of GPS,” Kantha Rao said, in an official statement to Express. He said 11 policemen sustained minor injuries in the encounter. The injured personnel were shifted to Sri Venkateswara Ramnarayana Ruia Government Hospital.
Meanwhile, Collector Siddarth Jain ordered a magistrate enquiry into the incident. An eight-member team led by District Revenue Officer (DRO) Vijay Chandra was appointed to conduct an inquest, with a time limit of 15 days. Speaking to Express, Chandra said a preliminary report will be submitted to the district magistrate by Tuesday evening. ‘’The final report will be submitted within 15 days,” he said. The revenue officials conducted inquest on the bodies where they were found and sent them to SV Medical College for autopsy. Majority of the victims are suspected to hail from Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts.