YANGON, Myanmar - The leader of Myanmar's ruling junta made his first visit to a refugee camp yesterday, patting the heads of babies and shaking hands with cyclone survivors, amid wide international criticism of his government's handling of the crisis.

State television featured footage of Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the junta leader, inspecting supplies and comforting victims in relatively clean and neat rows of blue tents. According to the report, Than Shwe traveled from the capital, Naypyitaw, in the northern jungles, to relief camps in the Hlaing Thar Yar and Dagon suburbs of Yangon. Some survivors clasped their hands and bowed as he and a column of military leaders walked past.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rebuffed so far in attempts to discuss the situation with the junta's leaders, announced he would go to the disaster zone Wednesday to try to ramp up aid efforts.

A senior British official hinted a breakthrough may also be near that would allow foreign military ships to join the relief effort, but warnings grew of a potential second wave of death among children hit by the lack of fresh water and shelter.

At least 78,000 people were killed in the May 2-3 storm and 56,000 are missing.

In the devastated Irrawaddy Delta south of Yangon, the situation remained grim.

In the city of Laputta, hundreds of children covered their heads from the rain with empty aluminum dishes as they lined up in front of a private donation center. They were given rice, a spoonful of curry and a potato.

"Children only. Please. Children only," shouted a man who pushed back a crowd of adults. He explained they were feeding children and the elderly first because food supplies are limited.

In a rare positive note, British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp. that he believes the rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma, may relent on allowing Western military ships to join in the relief effort, especially if Asian go-betweens are involved. "I think you're going to see quite dramatic steps by the Burmese to open up," he said.

A breakthrough appeared to be on the horizon in the junta's dealings with the United Nations. Myanmar's military government has given permission for Ban to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta to visit areas hardest hit by the cyclone, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

The announcement came as John Holmes, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, arrived in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, late yesterday to meet with junta leaders.

Myanmar's leaders, angered by criticism of their handling of the crisis, stepped up their rhetoric yesterday even amid warnings by Save the Children that thousands of children face starvation.