Junta 'lays on show' for world

Burma yesterday denied it had turned away any international aid after Cyclone Nargis hit the country 15 days ago, and flew foreign diplomats to parts of the disaster zone in an attempt to show the world it was in control of the situation.

But as French and American naval ships loaded with aid waited offshore, there were calls from some in the international community to bypass the junta and give direct help to 2.5 million survivors facing mounting threats of disease and starvation. Gordon Brown has not ruled out the option, which has been backed by Opposition leaders.

France has also hinted that it might support unilateral action. Jean-Maurice Ripert, the French ambassador to the UN, said of its offshore resources: "We have small boats, which could allow us to go through the delta to most of the regions where no one has accessed yet.

"We have small helicopters to drop food, and we have doctors."

Torrential monsoon rains have pelted the region for the last two days, slowing relief operations even further and increasing the risk of cholera and other diseases.

Thai and Indian medical teams were yesterday granted entry, but only 30 Thai doctors and nurses will be allowed to travel out of Rangoon to treat victims living in camps or remote villages.

The military government flew 60 diplomats and UN officials in helicopters to three places in the Irrawaddy Delta, insisting they were moving toward reconstruction and rebuilding, despite signs everywhere to the contrary.

Carefully selected camps, aid and survivors were put on display in the area where around 130,000 people are thought to have died.

"It was a show," said Shari Villarosa, the senior US diplomat in Burma. "That's what they wanted us to see." Bernard Delpuech, head of the European Commission's humanitarian office in Rangoon, described the devastation as "huge".

Aid agencies are warning that the death toll could rise rapidly in the next few days, as clean water becomes increasingly scarce.