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Bolivian Leader Quits Under Pressure

President resigns after weeks of street protests against his plan to export natural gas.

October 19, 2003|Kevin Gray | Associated Press Writer

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Embattled President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned Friday hours after losing the support of his last key ally following weeks of deadly street protests over an unpopular plan to export natural gas.

Under Bolivia's constitution, Vice President Carlos Mesa will replace him. A former television reporter, Mesa is a political independent and a historian.

Earlier, as word of the president's impending resignation spread, thousands of miners, students and Indians crowded the Plaza de San Francisco near the presidential palace, setting off sticks of dynamite and shouting anti-government slogans.

Sanchez de Lozada, 73, submitted his resignation in a letter to Congress. Then he reportedly left the presidential residence in a helicopter for the western city of Santa Cruz. Radio reports said he would eventually travel to the United States, but that could not be independently confirmed.

The resignation came after thousands of Bolivians marched through La Paz for a fifth straight day Friday, demanding Sanchez de Lozada step down 14 months into his second term. Columns of students, Indians and miners brandishing sticks of dynamite threaded past street barricades, shouting, "We will not stop until he's gone!"

With chaos in the streets, military planes airlifted hundreds of stranded foreigners from Bolivia's capital.

The U.S. military dispatched an assessment team to Bolivia on Friday to determine if plans need to be updated for protecting or evacuating the American embassy, a military spokesman said.

The team of fewer than six military experts will assess the situation on Bolivia's streets and recommend possible changes to the embassy's evacuation and protection plans, said Army Lt. Col. Bill Costello, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department warned Americans to defer travel to Bolivia.

The popular outrage against the president was sparked by a controversial proposal to export gas to the United States and Mexico through neighboring Chile.

The proposal tapped deep discord with Bolivia's decade-old free-market experiment, which has failed to narrow the gap between rich and poor in this impoverished country.

The proposal also underscored spreading popular distrust with his administration's U.S.-backed anti-coca growing policies, which have deprived thousands of poor Indian farmers of their livelihood and plunged the president's popularity ratings into the single digits.

Sanchez de Lozada temporarily suspended the gas export plan in the face of riots, which human rights groups said claimed as many as 65 lives. But the demonstrations for his resignation continued.

He offered to hold a referendum on the plan; foes rejected that too.

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