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Associated Press

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Military planes airlifted hundreds of stranded travelers from Bolivia's capital Friday, and a key member of the president's ruling coalition quit the government amid renewed street protests in South America's poorest country.

Thousands of Bolivians marched through La Paz for a fifth straight day, demanding that President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada step down only 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!"

For weeks, government opponents have taken to the streets, demanding Sanchez de Lozada's resignation after his administration announced a plan to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico.

Early Friday, a Brazilian air force plane flew 105 people out of Bolivia. Brazilian officials said 53 of those people were Brazilian tourists trapped in La Paz after all commercial flights in and out of the nearby El Alto international airport were halted last weekend.

The main highway link between La Paz and El Alto is lined daily with hundreds of demonstrators clutching rocks and sticks and burning barricades.

When the plane arrived in Brazil, it was greeted by an air force band playing the national anthem.

"I felt as if I was in the middle of a war and that I would never be able to return to Brazil," said Antonio Vieira, a school teacher. "Sometimes I watched out the hotel window and saw bodies, some with their heads shattered."

Lana Ferreira, an engineer who lives in Rio de Janeiro, said two buses picked up the group at a hotel and drove them to the airport, where they slept on mattresses provided by the embassy.

Jose Gomes da Silva, a radio reporter who also was rescued, said passengers were guarded by army soldiers and were not allowed to talk.

More than 100 Israelis holed up in their hotels for five days also were flown out, Israeli media reported. The Israelis and other tourists were taken to Lima, Peru, the reports said.

A Peruvian air force plane also evacuated 80 stranded Peruvians to the Andean city of Arequipa on Friday and planned to return to Bolivia to shuttle more people out, a Peruvian cable news channel reported.

Meanwhile, the British government advised its citizens Friday not to travel to Bolivia because of deteriorating security. Britons already in Bolivia should keep off the streets, refrain from traveling and avoid demonstrations, it said.

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

The fragile coalition government of Sanchez de Lozada, 73, suffered another blow Friday when Manfred Reyes Villa, a key presidential supporter in congress, said he was quitting the government after weeks of deadly riots between troops and Bolivian Indians carrying sticks.

Human rights groups say as many as 65 people have been killed in clashes, but the government will not confirm any figures.

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"I've come to tell him: 'No more,' " Reyes Villa said. "The people don't believe in this government anymore and there is no other option but for him to resign."

On Thursday, presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana also resigned.

Sanchez de Lozada, who has U.S. support, has said he will not step down.

Reyes Villa's departure leaves the president increasingly isolated as he tries to defuse the crisis in this Andean nation of 8.8 million people.

Critics say the proposal to construct a $5 billion pipeline to export gas to the United States and Mexico will only benefit the wealthy. They also are angered over the gas possibly being exported through a Pacific port in neighboring Chile, the country's longtime rival.

The plan tapped deep discord with Bolivia's decade-old free-market experiment, which has brought punishing price hikes and austerity programs.

Late Wednesday, the president sought to defuse the growing crisis with a nationally televised address in which he offered to hold a national referendum vote over the plan.

A U.S.-educated millionaire, Sanchez de Lozada served as president from 1993 to 1997. He took office for a second term in August 2002 after narrowly defeating Morales, a radical congressman.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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