By Amy Kazmin in Bangkok and Raphael Minder in Singapore
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, yesterday accused Burma's military rulers of "criminal neglect" of their people, amid criticism that they were pushing victims of cyclone Nargis back to their devastated villages prematurely.
International aid agencies are also complaining of persistent difficulties getting clearance to work in the stricken Irrawaddy delta, despite the regime's promise to allow full access to "genuine humanitarian workers".
A World Food Programme helicopter - badly needed to accelerate the delivery of supplies, especially to remote areas - has been parked on the tarmac at the Rangoon airport for a week, awaiting regime clearance for use.
Numerous foreign aid workers, including 30 technical experts from the International Federation of the Red Cross and others from Médecins Sans Frontières, remain stuck in Rangoon, waiting for permission to enter the disaster zone.
However, Major-General Aye Myint, deputy defence minister, defended the regime's response to the emergency, telling an Asian security conference in Singapore yesterday that victims had received food, water and medicine due to authorities' "prompt work".
Although Nargis has left an estimated 133,000 people dead or missing and 2.4m survivors virtually destitute, Burma's junta has been reluctant to accept foreign support and expertise.
Mr Gates said the regime had been "deaf and dumb" to repeated US offers of help, including from the USS Essex and three other naval vessels laden with supplies in waters near the disaster zone.
"We have reached out, they have kept their hands in their pockets," he said. "We have exercised our moral obligations above and beyond the call." With western and Asian governments divided over delivering aid without the regime's approval, Mr Gates said the Essex would probably withdraw "in a matter of days".
The UN has called for any return of cyclone survivors to their villages to be "voluntary and done on a consultative basis". It said forced eviction from temporary camps would be "completely unacceptable".
Throughout the Irrawaddy delta, aid workers say temporary settlements, where the UN estimates 260,000 people have sought refuge since the cyclone, are being gradually shut down and their residents dispersed.
Myuangmya, a town that became a magnet for survivors searching for food, water and other help, now had just eight temporary settlements, from 30 a week ago, one aid worker said. Aid workers say authorities in Laputta are closing camps in town and offering victims a choice of returning to their communities or relocating to new camps outside town.
Terje Skavdal, of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the UN had made it clear to the authorities "we do not endorse premature returns to areas where there are no services.
"Satisfactory conditions need to be created before [people] can return to their place of origin."