Before the talks, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, had urged the Rome conference to back an "immediate cessation of hostilities" between Israel and Hezbollah forces.

But a joint declaration read after the conference fell short of Annan's request, instead pledging to work with "urgency" for a truce.

The declaration, read by Massimo D'Alema, the Italian foreign minister, expressed the international community's "determination to work immediately to reach with utmost urgency a ceasefire to put an end to the current hostilities".

He said such a truce "must be lasting, permanent and sustainable".

Unacceptable

Annan's view, shared by many Arab governments, was rejected by the US and Britain, who say conditions are not yet right for a lasting ceasefire.

"A temporary cessation of hostilities would offer crucial hours and days for essential humanitarian tasks"

Kofi Annan

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, who had been under pressure to lean on Israel to end its offensive, said there could be "no return to the status quo ante".

"We are all agreed that we want most urgently to end the violence on a basis that this time will be sustainable," she said. "Because, unfortunately, this is a region that has had too many broken ceasefires."

Mohamad Raad, leader of Hezbollah's 14-member parliamentary bloc, called for an immediate ceasefire and for indirect negotiations on prisoner exchanges.

He said: "Anything other than that is not acceptable."

During a two-day visit to Tajikistan, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said late on Wednesday that a ceasefire must precede talks and blamed Israel for the hostilities. He called on Israel to compensate Lebanon and apologise for its actions.

He said: "The United States wanted to recarve the map of the region with Israel's help."

Neither Israel nor Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran, were invited to the conference, co-chaired by the US and Italy.

Compensation

During the meeting, Fuad Saniora, the Lebanese prime minister, said Israel should be forced to pay compensation for damage caused by military strikes on the country's infrastructure.

He also called on Wednesday for a prisoner exchange supervised by the Red Cross as part of a plan to resolve the crisis.

He said: "Israel cannot go on indefinitely disregarding international law. It must be made to pay and we shall commence legal proceedings and spare no avenue to make Israel compensate the Lebanese people."

The Lebanese government said that $2.07billion worth of damage had been caused by Israeli attacks.

Deliberate attack

Earlier, Annan had criticised Israel over what he said was a deliberate attack that killed four UN observers in southern Lebanon.

He said: "The death and destruction we have witnessed in the past two weeks ... compels this conference to send a strong message and to speak with one voice.

Israel is continuing to suffer
casualties in Lebanon

"A temporary cessation of hostilities would offer crucial hours and days for essential humanitarian tasks."

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday that he wanted to establish a security zone between one and two kilometres wide on the Lebanese side of the border to stop Hezbollah fighters firing rockets at Israel, the Israeli media reported.

Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed in clashes in a southern Lebanese town, Aljazeera said.

Israel's war against Hezbollah has killed at least 418 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians. At least 42 Israelis have also died.