Indian police have killed 20 suspected sandalwood smugglers during a fierce gun battle in the southern forests of Andhra Pradesh state.

M Kantha Rao, deputy inspector general of a special police task force, said on Tuesday that the smugglers attacked forest and police officials as they were searching for 200 smugglers believed to have been cutting down trees overnight near the Hindu pilgrimage town of Tirupati.

Nine smugglers were killed in one place and 11 in a second clash a kilometre away.

The smugglers attacked the officials "with axes and other sharp-edged weapons, forcing the police to open fire" in self-defense, Rao said.

The Times of India newspaper reported that the incident was the biggest-ever police encounter involving smugglers of red sandalwood smugglers in Andhra Pradesh. Red sandalwood is an extremely rare type, and as a result, extremely expensive.

The newspaper also reported that police have tightened security in the district after the incident.

Sandalwood smuggling is rampant in southern India, with one tonne going for up to $80,000 on the black market due to high demand in countries such as China and Japan.

India's most wanted sandalwood smuggler, Veerappan, was shot dead in a gunbattle in 2004 but since then smaller gangs have sprung up. Most of the wood is smuggled out through northeast India into Myanmar.

Source: Agencies