A police officer was killed and two others wounded in a shooting attack on their vehicle outside the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday morning, police said.

All three were evacuated by helicopter to Hadassa hospital in Jerusalem, emergency services said, as the army began scouring the area for the attackers.

A doctor at Hadassa said the most severely wounded officer, Command Sergeant Major Yehoshua (Shuki) Sofer, was in critical condition when he arrived at the hospital after being shot in the stomach. He later died of his wounds.

Army Radio reported that a fourth officer received treatment - possibly for shock.

Gunmen opened fire on the police vehicle as it traveled on road 60, north of Hebron, carrying officers to duty stations in the city.

Initial investigations suggest the shooting was a planned ambush.

"This was definitely a terrorist attack. It was carried out on an ordinary police vehicle and forces are now combing the scene," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Settler anger

Following the shooting, the head of the Civil Administration, the Israeli military authority that governs the West Bank, accused Palestinian Authority leaders of not enough to prevent violence. Brig-Gen. Yoav Mordechai said the attack was a "serious incident" that could not be overlooked.

Settler leaders turned on the government, saying the attack was a result of government moves to lift restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank.

Michael Ben-Ari, a Knesset member for the right-wing National Union party, said: "The writing was on the wall. Opening roadblocks encourages terror and gives a free hand to terrorists."

A spokesman for the Yesha Council, which represents the settler movement, said: "Sharing security responsibilities with the Palestinians, as the IDF has done across Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and in Hebron in particular, cannot bring security and Israel's soldiers and citizens are paying the price in blood."

According to B'Tselem, a human rights group, the number of manned checkpoints inside the West Bank, went down from 63 to 44 in the past year. Eighteen of the checkpoints are in Hebron.

Second shooting in weeks

Last month two Israelis were hurt by broken glass when bullets hit their car on a different stretch of the same road.

The Imad Mughniyeh Group of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for that attack, which it said was in response to Israel's deadly raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip on May 31.

In March 2009, two policemen were killed when gunmen opened fire on their car on road 90, also in the West Bank.