India red sandalwood: Police accused over logger deaths

Members of the media film the bodies of loggers killed by an anti-smuggling task force in a remote forest in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh on April 7, 2015.
Image caption The bodies of those killed were strewn among logs on the ground

Indian human rights groups are demanding an investigation into the deaths of 20 suspected red sandalwood smugglers after they clashed with police in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Local media say many of the men were shot at close range, some in the face.

Police say they defended themselves from attack by axes, sticks and stones.

Sandalwood smuggling is rampant in southern India, with a tonne selling for tens of thousands of dollars on the international black market.

Most of the casualties were from neighbouring Tamil Nadu state. Eight suspected smugglers were injured.

"At one of the two sites where bodies were found, seven of the nine dead had been shot in the face or the back of the head," the Indian Express reported. It said many had burn injuries.

BBC Tamil's Muralidharan Kasiviswanathan, who visited the area where the men were killed, says the shootings have sent shock waves through Tamil Nadu.

He says the labourers had been attracted to Andhra Pradesh to cut trees by lucrative pay rates of 3,000-5,000 rupees ($48-$80; £32-£53) a day. The loggers are often poor tribespeople or other migrant workers.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam wrote to his Andhra Pradesh counterpart, demanding an inquiry.

"Many of these persons are reportedly from Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts of Tamil Nadu. While it is possible that these persons may have been engaged in illegal activities, the occurrence of such high casualties in the operation raises concerns whether the Task Force personnel acted with adequate restraint," he said.

The leader of the MDMK party, Vaiko, said: "Big smuggling sharks escape and it is the poor who have been killed."

After news of the deaths broke, protesters attacked seven Andhra Pradesh Transport Corporation buses in the Tamil Nadu capital Chennai (Madras), the Indian Express reports.

India banned the sale of red sandalwood or red sanders in 2000.

The species of tree is endemic to the Western Ghats mountains of southern India.

It is prized for its rich red wood, mainly for making furniture and musical instruments in East Asia, and is distinct from the highly aromatic sandalwood trees that are native to southern India.

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