Thai colonel says boatpeople sent back to sea to help them A colonel in the Thai army has confirmed its involvement in a programme to round up boatpeople from Myanmar and Bangladesh and send them back out to sea, saying it was done to 'protect Thailand from harm' - and to help the refugees. Colonel Sangob Naktanom, deputy commander of the Ranong regional command on the Andaman coast, said the army had been funding the programme, under which village chiefs were trained to 'gather together' boatpeople on suitable land. He did not concede they were being held against their will. However, a photograph obtained yesterday by the South China Morning Post showed a group of men in Muslim garb being detained behind barbed wire on an island - identifiable from rock formations as Koh Sai Daeng. Last week, the Post revealed that the Thai army was behind an operation to detain Rohingya boatpeople on Koh Sai Daeng, tow them out to sea, then abandon them in unpowered vessels. Hundreds died. The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim ethnic minority living along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Colonel Sangob said the villagers provided food, water and clothing while they repaired the Rohingya's boats. The Rohingya were then sent on their way. He said villagers sometimes found them new boats, or berths on boats heading to Indonesia and Malaysia. Others were handed to immigration police. Colonel Sangob said the programme was an attempt to help the Rohingya, who did not want to stay in Thailand anyway. He denied that the army towed the Rohingya out to sea, or forced them to leave. Reuters reported that Colonel Manat Khongpan, of the army's internal security branch, testified to the Thai parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that some villagers had 'helped them repair their boat and towed it out to sea'. There was no explanation for this discrepancy. Of the 1,000 or so boatpeople abandoned at sea by the Thais, 538 were dead or missing as of Sunday. Indian coastguard and security agency interviews with survivors who were found in Indian waters described how the Thai military towed them out to sea at gunpoint, then abandoned them in unpowered boats. In one horrific case, about 300 Rohingya - from a boatload of 412 - who tried to swim ashore drowned. 'They never wanted to stay in Thailand, they wanted to keep going to Indonesia and Malaysia and so we helped the villagers help them,' Colonel Sangob said yesterday. 'The villagers did not want to do them any harm. The army did not want to harm them.' Colonel Sangob said the regional Internal Security Operations Command, headed by Colonel Manat, was actively involved in monitoring the arrival of Rohingya in Thai waters. Asked what inspired the programme, he said the growing annual influx of Muslim Rohingya was a potential security threat. 'As the army, we have to ask ourselves, 'Why are they coming here?' ... We had to tell the villagers to protect Thailand.' Colonel Manat denied in an earlier interview that the army was involved in handling Rohingya. 'I guarantee on my life that they have not been badly treated in Thailand,' he said. Colonel Sangob was speaking before he met Senator Prasong Nurack, who is investigating the issue. Senator Prasong said he was 'not comfortable' with the thought of Rohingya being put back out to sea.