CHICAGO (AP) _ Montgomery Ward & Co., struggling to return to profitability, announced Friday that it will close nine stores in seven states, resulting in the loss of as many as 793 jobs.

The Chicago-based retailer, now in the middle of Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, said the stores were underperforming the remaining 291 it has across the country and would be closed in June, pending U.S Bankruptcy Court approval.

The 126-year-old pioneer of mail-order catalogs last year closed about 100 money-losing stores, and had reported its sales this year were on the rise.

``We are particularly pleased with our progress in the areas of margin improvement and softlines sales, which are showing double digit increases year to date and are meeting projections,'' said Roger Goddu, chairman and chief executive of the Chicago-based retailer. ``We will continue to closely monitor the financial performance of all locations as we go forward.''

Montgomery Ward executives said Friday that some of the 793 sales associates at the stores may be reassigned. The stores closing are located in Fort Smith, Ark.; Savannah, Ga.; Coeur D'Alene, Idaho; Carbondale, Ill.; Gaithersburg, Md.; and Bloomington, Roseville and St. Paul, Minn. A store in New Bern, N.C., that does not sell apparel also was to be shuttered.

In filings earlier this year, Wards reported a staggering $1.17 billion annual loss as sales at its stores plunged by double-digits in the last three months of 1997.