"It was an incident where the police had to open fire in self-defence because they were terribly outnumbered," said Government's Communication Advisor, Parakala Prabhakar.

20 people were gunned down yesterday in a police operation said to be against Red Sanders smugglers that came under severe attack from the government and political parties in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which claimed that many victims were labourers from their state.

He said a small combing party of 10-15 personnel were encircled by more than 200 smugglers who were "moving menacingly" towards them.

"In the past, police officials were axed to death, hacked to death. So, in self-defence, police had to open fire," Prabhakar said. The state had lost six police officers (attacked by red sanders smugglers) while on duty during combing operations in the last few years, he said.

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