After waiting three weeks off Myanmar’s coast for permission to aid Cyclone Nargis victims, the USS Essex strike group, with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard, was to leave the area Thursday, according to an MEU spokesman.

"We have been approved to continue with scheduled operations," 1st Lt. Jorge Escatell said Wednesday in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. The Essex group will return to Thailand, where it had been participating in the Cobra Gold exercise.

The amphibious strike group staged in the Andaman Sea on May 13, departing Cobra Gold to offer aid to cyclone victims.

But the Myanmar military junta, while allowing some international and foreign aid to enter the country, refused assistance from the U.S. ships.

"It is time for the USS Essex group to move on to its next mission," Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said in a news release. "However, we will leave several heavy lift aircraft in place in Thailand so as to continue to support international community efforts to deliver aid."

United Nations officials estimate that more than 77,000 people have been killed, 55,000 are missing and 500,000 to 600,000 have been displaced since Cyclone Nargis made landfall May 2.

Working with the U.N. and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the U.S. government has made more than 100 airlifts on C-130s flying from Thailand to Rangoon with more than 2 million pounds of emergency relief supplies, according to PACOM’s Web site.

Keating hand-delivered a request to Myanmar leaders May 12 that detailed the U.S. offer of "heavy lift helicopters and landing craft capable of reaching areas inaccessible by road, as well as water-making and purification capability, and medical assistance," according to the release.

The United States made at least 15 attempts to convince the government to allow ships, helicopters and landing craft to enter Myanmar, Keating said in the release.

While Joint Task Force Caring Response, as the relief operation was dubbed, succeeded in getting the C-130 airlifts into the country, relief assistance from the Navy and Marines was continually denied.

"I am both saddened and frustrated to know that we have been in a position to help ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people and help mitigate further loss of life, but have been unable to do so because of the unrelenting position of the Burma military junta," Keating said.

However, should the Myanmar government "have a change of heart and request our full assistance for their suffering people we are prepared to help," Keating said in the release.

Along with the USS Essex, the Essex strike group includes the amphibious transport dock ship USS Juneau, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry and the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin.

Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten contributed to this report.

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