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BANDMATE'S DEPARTURE SURPRISED A ROLLING STONE

Keith Richards admits he was surprised when former bandmate Bill Wyman left the Rolling Stones. He never imagined anyone . . . uh . . . "retiring."

"My gut reaction was, nobody leaves this band, except in a coffin," Richards said while answering questions by computer on the Prodigy network.Original Stones guitarist Brian Jones drowned in a swimming pool in 1969. Wy-man's departure in January 1993 left Richards, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts as the remaining original Stones.

The trio have become like war buddies after three decades together.

"It's your battalion, like you've been through something, there are those who are left and you have your battle scars," Richards said. "The intensity is such that it's like a furnace sometimes."