In the biggest operation against Maoists in Chhattisgarh this year, security forces killed at least 20 insurgents in three encounters between Thursday night and Friday morning, official sources said.
The gun battles between the Maoists and the combined force of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and state police took place in the Maoist bastion of Bastar.
In New Delhi, home minister P Chidambaram said three of those killed were "important" Maoist leaders.
"The operation was a planned one, but the first fire came from Maoists," Chidambaram said, adding that six CRPF personnel were seriously injured in the operation.
Chhattisgarh’s additional director general of police (anti-Maoist operations) Ram Niwas said, "We don't kill but retaliate when attacked. Otherwise, why would we have rushed four injured Maoists to hospitals?"
The operation by the security forces was launched on the basis of intelligence inputs that senior Maoists were to hold a meeting at a spot between Jagargunda and Basaguda, sources said.
A meticulously planned search and combing operation was conducted from three different directions, all of which ended in gun battles, said a state police officer.
Villagers of Basaguda in Bijapur, around 480km south of Raipur, however, alleged that the people killed were not Maoists but innocent tribals, including women and children.
Countering the claim, the police said 12 bodies were identified and most were Maoists. Only one of the deceased was a woman and there were no children, an officer said.
"At least four of the deceased had criminal records," said Bijapur collector Rajat Kumar. "Of them, Irpa Somulu played a role in the Dantewada jailbreak of December 2007. And Kosa Vije had allegedly hacked a policeman and several special police officers to death," he said.
Claiming they were identifying the rest of the bodies, Bijapur SP Prashant Agrawal said, "If any Maoist sympathiser was present and got caught in the crossfire, what can the forces do?"
With PTI inputs