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By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - An uptick in deadly violence against transgender women in El Salvador prompted the United Nations on Friday to call for an investigation into crimes against sexual minorities in the conservative Central American country.

So far this year, seven transgender women have been killed in El Salvador, according to the Geneva-based Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Local LGBT organizations put the death toll at 17 through the first four months of the year.

In 2016, at least 25 transgender women were killed over the course of the entire year, according to the local organizations.

Leading transgender activist Karla Avelar said local gang members have demanded money and made threats that forced her to flee her home six times in the past two years.

Avelar, who leads a local trans-rights organisation, said in an interview she has no faith that local authorities can protect her from gangs who routinely demand extortion payments from residents and businesses.

"Criminals operate within the same institutions of government. So how can you entrust your life to them? How can you entrust your security to these institutions?" said Avelar.

Avelar, 40, is a finalist for the 2017 Martin Ennals Award, an international prize for human rights activists, but said the gang members have already sought to extort some of the future prize money if she wins.

"I won't wait for them to kill me," said Avelar. "And how am I going to give them something I don't even have?"

The Salvadoran activist declined to identify the names or gang affiliation of the men who threatened her, or where she now lives, for fear of retaliation.

"We urge the government of El Salvador to take urgent measures to ensure the protection of Ms. Avelar and other (LGBT) activists and individuals who are under threat," said OHCHR spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani, adding that authorities should investigate what she described as "hate crimes."

The Salvadoran attorney general's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last year, El Salvador registered 81.7 homicides per 100,000 residents, one of the highest murder rates anywhere in the world.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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