© Reuters
Anger: Thousands of women gather in Rome's Piazza del Popolo to protest against Silvio Berlusconi
A million women took to the streets across Italy yesterday calling on Silvio Berlusconi to resign over a sex scandal.

Marches were held in 200 towns and cities to show their anger at the prime minister, who is facing charges of having underage sex with a prostitute and abuse of power.

Some protesters had even planned to throw their knickers into the garden of his home in Rome, but this never materialised.

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'If not now, when?' Women in Italy are furious at the 'degrading' coverage of sex scandals embroiling Mr Berlusconi

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Support: Film maker Cristina Comencini addresses the crowd in Rome and, right, a placard carried by one of the women

Protests were held in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Naples and Bari but the largest was in Rome, where thousands packed into the Piazza del Popolo.

Demonstrators carried banners saying: 'Berlusconi resign now', while another read: 'No prostitutes, no Madonnas, just women.'

Lawyer Giulia Bongiorno, a member of a party that broke away from Mr Berlusconi's ruling coalition, said: 'If you stay silent in situations like this then you become an accomplice. This is not a moralists' rally as has been suggested but yes, he (Berlusconi) is scared of you.'

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March: Prosecuters called for Berlusconi to be charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute. A decision will be made next week if he should stand trial

© The Associated Press
Media glare: A nun addresses a crowd in Rome. Women, and some men, have turned out in force in 200 cities across Italy
Mr Berlusconi, 74, is said to have paid for sex with Moroccan belly dancer Karima El Mahroug, then 17, at one of his infamous 'bunga bunga' parties last year.

Investigators also say the prime minister abused his position by having her freed from custody when she was arrested for theft.

Wiretaps leaked from the prosecution file suggest Mr Berlusconi surrounded himself at the parties with women hoping to use their looks to gain positions in politics or his Mediaset TV empire.

Iaia Caputo, of the committee which organised the 'If Not Now, When?' demonstrations, said: 'The case has revealed a system of political selection based on an exchange of sex and power. If we accept this as normal, we risk prejudicing the free choice of women.'

Men were also encouraged to attend the rallies.

Education minister Mariastella Gelmini said yesterday: 'It's just a small protest from trendy radicals.'

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Scandal: Karima El Mahroug, known as Ruby, is alleged to have been paid for sex by Mr Berlusconi, who then used his influence to get her out of police custody. Right, Patrizia D'Addario claimed to have been paid to spend two evenings and one night with him
Men have also been encouraged to attend the rallies and prostitutes and nuns have also said they will attend to voice their anger and disgust at Berlusconi's Benny Hill style behaviour.

For almost a month now billionaire media tycoon Berlusconi has been in the spotlight over claims of stripping nurses and policewomen at his infamous 'bunga bunga' parties.

The phrase is said to refer to a crude after dinner sex game and Berlusconi has insisted that the regular parties he held at his mansion at Arcore near Milan were nothing more than convivial social events.

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Under pressure: But Berlusconi has claimed allegations against him are politically motivated

Following a tense meeting with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano about the scandal the respected daily Corriere Della Sera published a cartoon of the two men on its front page.

It showed Berlusconi telling the president: 'Bunga bunga is a perfectly innocent game - if you like I can show you,' which is greeted with a look of surprise from Napolitano.

The scandal seems to have had little effect on Berlusconi's popularity with just a five per cent drop in his approval ratings and polls show that if an immediate general election were held he would win.

He has plenty of supporters in Italy who agree with him, including many women, and they plan demonstrations in support of him outside the prosecutor's office in Milan.

In a reference to his numerous battles with the Italian judiciary they plan to hold placards reading: 'Hundred trials, no convictions equals persecution,' and 'Palace of INjustice.'

They claim his privacy has been violated by the investigation and are urging him to 'resist, resist, resist' as one supporter who was interviewed on Italian TV put it.

They were also urging women to show their support by going to pro Berlusconi rallies or not attending the demonstrations against him - popular Italian pop star Anna Tatangelo said she would not be taking part.

She said: 'I don't think the protest will help the climate in Italy. It's necessary to calm things down and restore order in the political situation and the basic things that concern our country.

'Don't go and protest, think about how we can really get back up.'

A preliminary hearings judge is not expected to announce before Monday or Tuesday whether she has granted the prosecution request to send the case to trial and if approved it could start as early as April.