Published: Jan 22, 2011 8:28 PM EST
Updated: Jan 22, 2011 5:29 PM EST

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Tunisia's once-feared police staged a rally of their own Saturday, demanding better salaries and insisting they're not to blame for shooting deaths among protesters who forced the North African country's longtime autocrat to flee.

At least 2,000 police rallied in downtown Tunis, an epicenter of protest and clashes between youths and police that forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to quit the country he ruled with an iron fist for 23 years.

It was a significant development for Tunisia, where police under Ben Ali were widely feared. The rally took place near the hulking Interior Ministry, a symbol of the dread that his regime inspired for many Tunisians.

Saturday's crowd on Avenue Bourguiba, where daily protests have been held, drew many plainclothes and uniformed police with red armbands. They sought to press demands like the creation of a labor union, better pay and - like other protests in recent days - the ousting of any members from Ben Ali's party from the government.

Officers climbed onto their official cars, blew their whistles and waved flags and signs. Some exchanged hugs to congratulate each other about their chance to protest. Many were joined by their families.

"I am not afraid to come down to the street," said Rida Barreh, 30, who has been an internal security officer for five years. "I work 12 hours a day and yet only get paid 500 dinars ($350, 250 euros) a month."

Barreh said he wanted a labor union to help defend police officers' interests - and wanted to convince Tunisians in general that "we are here for the people and we want to serve the people."

"The government always made sure the people were scared of us but this must end," he told The Associated Press. "Also I don't want the blood of our martyrs on my hands."

Added another officer, Nabil Jazeeri: "We need to forget the past and realize there is no home in Tunis that doesn't have a police officer or a man serving in the army."

For the first time, civilians in the crowd argued openly with some police.

After the midday rally by police, hundreds of young adults led a candlelight vigil, dripping candle wax over roses and singing the national anthem down the road on Avenue Bourguiba to honor the dozens of people who died in the weeks of unrest that led to Ben Ali's downfall. It came just before the nightly curfew was set to begin at 8 p.m. - part of measures in a state of emergency ordered in the final days of Ben Ali's regime.

"I came to salute the memory of the martyrs ... they died for our rights," said Nadia Akari, a 29-year-old communications student. "We still haven't completed the battle and nothing will get better overnight. We got rid of a dictator but not of a dictatorship. We still have a system to change."

The U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has estimated more than 100 deaths have occurred during the unrest in Tunisia since mid-December, and is sending an assessment team to the North African country.

Saturday's demonstration in Tunis came on the second of three days of mourning of dozens who died in the protests that drove Ben Ali from power.

"Tunisia is at a crossroads, and needs stability, a return of confidence and hope," said Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist and party leader in Tunisia who returned from exile in France after Ben Ali fled. "This is a delicate phase."

The government's new spokesman echoed such concerns.

"The revolution is a peaceful popular movement and the greatest danger threatening it is anarchy," said Taieb Baccouche, a spokesman for the interim government, at his first news conference in that post.

He cautioned that such anarchy "could lead the army to seize power."

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime Ben Ali ally, on Friday pledged to quit politics after elections that are held as soon as possible amid protests by citizens still angry at officials linked to the ousted regime.

That wasn't enough for Marzouki. Ghannouchi remains "a factor of instability," he said: "A prime minister who served more than 10 years in a dictatorship isn't able to build a democracy."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)