TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - Security forces loyal to Tunisia's former president unleashed a wave of terror on the population during the uprising that toppled the autocratic leader last month, with police killing, raping and robbing protesters, a women's group said Wednesday.
In an emotional news conference, the Association of Tunisian Democratic Women unveiled the conclusions of a probe that took a panel of professional women to four cities in the interior of the North African country in the final days of the protests that toppled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14.
The panel of eight - made up of doctors, lawyers and human rights advocates - braved the violence, traveling to the hard-hit cities of Kasserine, Thala, Maknassy and Regueb, where they said they witnessed scenes of oppression and spoke with victims and their families.
There were "fierce attacks, torture, robberies, rapes and attacks on houses committed by the impressive contingent of security forces," said Emna Zahrouni, a member of the association's so-called investigative and truth commission. "Snipers and units of the feared 'public order brigades' went so far as to fire on people gathering for funerals, which forced the families to flee and leave the coffin on the ground."
A United Nations mission has said at least 219 people were killed in the weeks of unrest, including dozens who died in prison fires.
The mothers of four teenagers killed in the uprising were on hand at Wednesday's news conference in the capital, Tunis.
One of the mothers, Hayet Jemni, told reporters, "My son, Marouane, had only stones in his hand and they shot at him with live ammunition and hit him in several places. He was in his prime and wanted to demonstrate for freedom and dignity."
"We were always told that Ben Ali was our father, but his hands are stained by the blood of our children," said Monai Tribi, another of the black-clad mothers. "He and his henchmen must pay for what they've done."
Members of the panel said they will continue to their investigation in other cities before publishing their conclusions - which they hope will help victims win compensation and possibly aid in prosecuting those behind the crackdown.
Tunisia's transitional government has appointed a separate panel to investigate the violence, but it has not yet made its conclusions public.
During 23 years in power, 74-year-old Ben Ali was accused of systematic repression, torture of political prisoners and corruption. Opponents were jailed or forced into exile.
Ben Ali and members of his family are now in exile themselves, in Saudi Arabia.
The mass protests were sparked on Dec. 17, when an unemployed young man set himself on fire after police confiscated the fruit and vegetable cart with which he supported his family. His desperate act struck a nerve, and small demonstrations in his hometown snowballed into a weekslong nationwide uprising that later inspired similar demonstrations in Egypt and other countries in the region.
Life in the tiny North African nation of 11 million has largely returned to normal as a caretaker government tries to stabilize the country ahead of elections, supposed to take place later in 2011.
The head of Tunisia's central bank, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, warned on Wednesday that the unrest was continuing to take a toll on the economy. A major drop in exports and the near paralysis of the crucial tourism sector have had an "enormous economic cost," he said.
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