Around 10,000 women marched through central Cairo demanding Egypt's ruling military step down Tuesday in an unprecedented show of outrage over soldiers who dragged women by the hair and stomped on them, and stripped one half-naked in the street during a fierce crackdown on activists the past week.

The dramatic protest, which grew as the women marched from Tahrir Square through downtown, was fuelled by the widely circulated images of abuses of women. Many of the marchers touted the photo of the young woman whose clothes were partially pulled off by troops, baring her down to her blue bra, as she struggled on the ground.

"Tantawi stripped your women naked, come join us," the crowd chanted to passers-by, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council that has ruled Egypt since the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak. "The daughters of Egypt are a red line," they chanted.

Even before the protest was over, the military council issued an unusually strong statement of regret for what it called "violations" against women — a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.

'I am a free woman, and attacking this woman or killing protesters is just like going after one of my own children.'—Protester Um Hossam

The council expressed "deep regret to the great women of Egypt" and affirmed "its respect and total appreciation" for women and their right to protest and take part in political life. It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations.

The statement suggested the military's fear that attacks on women could wreck its prestige at home and abroad, which has already been heavily eroded by its fierce, five-day-old crackdown on pro-democracy protesters demanding it surrender power. The ruling generals have campaigned to keep the public on its side in the confrontation, depicting the activists as hooligans and themselves as the honourable protectors of the nation, above reproach.

Reaction in Washington

In unusually harsh words, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday accused the Egyptian security forces and extremists of specifically targeting women.

"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people," she said.

In a possibly significant hint of new flexibility, the council also said in its statement Tuesday that it was prepared to discuss any initiatives to help the security of the country. In recent days, a number of political factions have pressed the military to hand over power by February, rather than June, when it promised to hold presidential elections.

In the past, police in Mubarak's regime were accused of intentionally humiliating women in protest crackdowns. But images of women being abused by soldiers were particularly shocking in a society that is deeply conservative and generally reveres the military. The independent press has splashed its front pages with pictures of soldiers chasing women protesters, including ones in conservative headscarves and full face-veils, beating them with sticks and clubs and dragging them by their hair. The crackdown has left 14 people dead -- all but one by gunshots -- and hundreds wounded.

The images of the half-stripped protester, whose identity is not known, clearly had a powerful resonance. A banner showing a photo of her on the asphalt -- one soldier yanking up her black robes and shirt, another poised to stomp on her chest -- was put up in Tahrir Square for passing drivers to see.

Female protesters targeted?

"The girl dragged around is just like my daughter," said Um Hossam, a 54-year old woman in traditional black dress and a headscarf at Tuesday's march. "I am a free woman, and attacking this woman or killing protesters is just like going after one of my own children."

Ringed by a protective chain of men, the women marched from Tahrir to the Journalists' Syndicate, several blocks away, chanting slogans demanding the military council step down.

Many accused the military of intentionally targeting women to scare them and their male relatives from joining protests against the generals. Previously, the military has implied women who joined protests were of loose morals. In March, soldiers subjected detained female protesters to humiliating tests to determine if they were virgins.

The protest also is likely to deepen the predicament of the military as critics began to talk openly about putting them on trial for abuses, and politicians are floating ideas for their exit, perhaps in return for immunity.

The public and many activists welcomed the military when it took power from Mubarak in February. But relations have deteriorated sharply since as the democracy activists accused the generals of hijacking their uprising, obstructing reforms, human rights abuses and failing to revive the ailing economy or restore security.