Death toll in Venezuela protests rises to 36 after pregnant woman and soldier are killed

A demonstrator confronts the National Police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, on March 20, 2014</p>

A demonstrator confronts the National Police during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, on March 20, 2014

A pregnant woman was shot dead near Caracas and a soldier was killed in the western state of Merida, officials said, as the death toll from weeks of anti-government protests in Venezuela rose to 36 on Monday.

Supporters of both sides and members of the security forces are among those killed in the nation's worst unrest in a decade, due to demonstrations against socialist President Nicolas Maduro that kicked off last month.

Francisco Garces, mayor of Guaicaipuro municipality near the capital and a member of the ruling Socialist Party, said the 28-year-old pregnant woman was shot dead on Sunday during a protest.

"We categorically reject the demonstrations that caused this death," Garces told reporters.

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The state prosecutor's office said the woman, Adriana Urquiola, was shot after getting off a public bus halted by a barricade set up by protesters.

In the western state of Merida, a senior military source and hospital officials said a National Guard sergeant died on Monday after being shot in the neck during clashes there.

Streets barriers have become flash points for violence between radical supporters of both sides, who sometimes carry firearms. Members of the security forces have also come under fire from nearby buildings as they try to dismantle them.

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Merida and neighboring Tachira state, by the border with Colombia, have been harder hit by the violence than anywhere else since the protests began. Last week, intelligence agents arrested the opposition mayor of San Cristobal city in Tachira and accused him of fomenting "civil rebellion."

The protests began in February with sporadic demonstrations by university students. They intensified after three people were killed following a February 12 rally in downtown Caracas.

The demonstrators want political change and an end to high inflation, shortages of basic foods, and one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world.

The main opposition leaders have repeatedly declined offers by Maduro for dialogue, saying they refuse to take part in meetings that will provide little more than photo-ops.

The demonstrators are demanding the president resign, while Maduro says they want a coup like the one 12 years ago that briefly ousted his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

The numbers of protesters are far fewer than those who turned out against Chavez in 2002, and there have been no signs that the current unrest threatens to topple Maduro.

(Additional reporting by Javier Faria in San Cristobal; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)