YANGON, Myanmar - A French navy ship carrying 1,000 tons of food idled near Myanmar's coast Saturday, awaiting permission from the uncooperative ruling military regime to dock in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta.
Myanmar's junta, meanwhile, took a group of foreign diplomats for a tour of the Irrawaddy, after announcing that the death toll from Cyclone Nargis has nearly doubled to 78,000 with about 56,000 missing.
Aid groups have said the toll is probably about 128,000, with many more deaths possible from disease and starvation unless help is provided quickly to some 2.5 million survivors of the May 2-3 cyclone.
Despite possessing little means to deliver aid quickly and efficiently, the isolationist government of this desperately poor country insists it does not want international aid groups to manage relief operations. It says all foreign aid must be delivered to the government, which will distribute it further. It has also barred foreigners from leaving Yangon, the country's main city.
A French government statement said navy ship Le Mistral was waiting some 13 miles outside Myanmar's territorial waters, hoping to go in and unload its cargo of 1,000 tons of food - enough to feed 100,000 people for 15 days. The aid also includes shelters for 15,000 people, the statement said.
"The specifics of the delivery of this aid have not yet been defined," the statement said, adding such details "will be the subject of negotiations" with Myanmar authorities, who are yet to authorize it to dock either in the delta or in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city.
"The Mistral is sailing close to the area most affected by Cyclone Nargis, where the needs are greatest and access the most difficult," the statement said.
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert warned Friday that the government's refusal to allow aid to be delivered to people "could lead to a true crime against humanity."
In Yangon, news of the approach of the French ship created an excited buzz among residents who were phoning each other to ask how far the ship was and when it would arrive.
The excitement reflected the frustrations felt by many of Myanmar's people, who have watched their government reject international help every day ignoring pleas by the United Nations, foreign governments and aid agencies.
In an effort to showcase its relief efforts, the junta flew a group of diplomats to Irrawaddy Saturday, diplomats and U.N. officials said. It is not clear if the diplomats will be allowed to see anything more than the stage-managed relief camp the junta is expected to put on display.
The diplomats are expected to return to Yangon later Saturday.
Their trip is a huge concession by the junta, which has kept a tight lid on information. It has put up a security cordon around Yangon to restrict foreign aid workers from going to the Irrawaddy delta, where scenes of devastation were rife and corpses were rotting where they died.
In another concession, the junta has agreed to allow 160 foreign aid workers from friendly countries like Thailand, India and Bangladesh. A 32-member Thai medical team left for Yangon Saturday.
John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, was going to Myanmar on Sunday to try to convince junta leaders to grant more access to U.N. relief workers and to massively scale up aid efforts.
"More than two weeks after the event, we are at a critical point," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday. "Unless more aid gets into the country - quickly - we face the risk of an outbreak of infectious diseases that could dramatically worsen today's crisis."
The U.N. says lack of access has left it largely in the dark about the people's needs.
Aid groups say survivors are crammed in makeshift refugee camps, schools and monasteries, living on food donations from private citizens who are ferrying rice, noodles, biscuits and other aid material in their cars or trucks. Torrential monsoon rains have lashed the delta for the last two days, further slowing relief operations.
Lack of clean water is becoming a big problem with the Red Cross warning that it could lead to many deaths in coming days.
The U.S. military flew four more flights of emergency supplies into Yangon on Friday, raising its total to 17 since Monday. Two of the flights were filled with aid provided by the Thai government. India was also readying flights.