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Lebanon battles rage

BEIRUT – Hizbollah guerrillas killed nine Israeli soldiers in Lebanon on Wednesday in fierce fighting set to continue after diplomats in Rome failed to agree on calling for an immediate end to the 15-day-old war.

In separate fighting in the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces killed 24 Palestinians.

Foreign ministers at the crisis conference pledged to work urgently for a “lasting, permanent and sustainable” ceasefire, but did not call for the fighting to stop now, as Lebanon and its Arab allies had demanded.Israel’s offensive is by no means over, an Israeli general said. “Given the progress over the last two weeks, I reckon it will continue for several more weeks,” Major-General Udi Adam, head of the northern command, told reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has insisted that no truce can be sought unless the status quo is changed.

“We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a ceasefire that will be sustainable,” Rice told a closing news conference in Rome.

The United States has backed Israeli demands for Hizbollah to pull back from the border and ultimately disarm.

In the latest fighting, Lebanese security sources said guerrillas ambushed an Israeli force advancing on the town of Bint Jbeil, four km (2.5 miles) from the frontier.

The Israeli army said eight of its soldiers were killed at Bint Jbeil and 22 wounded. An Israeli army officer was killed and three soldiers were wounded in a Hizbollah attack on the nearby village of Maroun al-Ras.

In Rome, the ministers agreed a U.N.-mandated international force was needed to secure the Israel-Lebanon border.

They urged Israel to exercise “utmost restraint” in its assault on Lebanon, launched after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12.