LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Tens of thousands of Bolivians rallied to demand the president's resignation yesterday, after protest leaders rejected the government's offer to compromise over a gas export plan that triggered weeks of deadly street clashes.
Soldiers guarded the presidential palace as columns of farmers, workers, miners, and indigenous groups descended on La Paz, setting off dynamite and wielding sticks. Others waved the rainbow-colored flag that is the symbol of Bolivia's Indian community.
Over the past three weeks, demonstrators have set up roadblocks and battled police in a crisis pitting the ruling elite against a poor Indian majority over market reforms that have failed to narrow the gap between rich and poor in South America's poorest country.
Human rights groups say some 65 people have died, most of them at the hands of police and military. The government has not confirmed the deaths.
In Washington, the State Department urged all US citizens to defer travel to Bolivia.
Yesterday's protests signaled a new escalation of political trouble for President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
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 his gas export plan.
But Evo Morales, a powerful Indian opposition leader and head of the country's coca growers, said the president has no choice but to step down.
"There are too many deaths now," he said.
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're also angry that the gas could be exported through a Pacific port in neighboring Chile, the country's longtime rival.
Demonstrators yesterday shouted "Goni assassin!" as they marched through the downtown streets, referring to the president by his nickname. Lines formed outside grocery stores over worries of food shortages as demonstrators continued to block roads, choking off the city from the rest of the country.
Sanchez de Lozada has said he would not consider resigning. But the president has found himself increasingly isolated since the protests began late last month.