Page last updated at 11:40 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Israel hunts West Bank attackers

Scene of attack on policemen at Massua, Jordan Valley
The policemen had been shot at close range

Israeli security forces are searching for the attackers believed to be behind the fatal shooting of two Israeli traffic policemen in the West Bank.

The dying officers were found in their car in the Massua district of the Jordan Valley on Sunday evening.

They are the first Israelis to die in a shooting attack in the West Bank since April of last year.

A previously unknown group, named after a dead Lebanese Hezbollah leader, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Imad Mughniyeh Group, named after the man killed by a bomb in Damascus just over a year ago, made its claim in messages to foreign media. Israel denied any role in the Hezbollah commander's assassination.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirms two officers have been shot dead

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the two policemen, David Rabinovitch, 42, and Yehezkel Remzarker, 50, had been shot at point blank range.

One of the "main possibilities" was that the attackers staged a break down or mechanical problem with their car, and then opened fire as the police stopped to offer help, he said.

He said it seems likely there were at least two attackers, because of the way both officers were shot at such close range.

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The Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, blamed the attack on the policy of removal of some of the checkpoints that restrict Palestinian movements around the West Bank.

A major checkpoint north-west of Nablus, in place since 2001, had been opened earlier in the day in response to a decrease in attacks originating from the town, the Israeli military said.

Mr Rosenfeld said there seemed to be a "large possibility" that the attackers fled to one of the villages in the Nablus area, using a route which they previously would have been unable to use.

He said a "nationalistic motive" appeared to have been behind Sunday's attack.

The BBC's Paul Wood in Jerusalem says the West Bank had become relatively peaceful before Sunday's attack as Palestinian police, trained and funded by the West, have become increasingly effective in clamping down on militants.

Massua is located in the Jordan Valley, just south-east of the town of Nablus. The area is close to the Jordanian border and, like the rest of the West bank, under Israeli military occupation.

Anger has been running high among Palestinians since Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, which left some 1,300 Palestinians dead, our correspondent says.

The shooting also comes at a particularly sensitive time as Israel's government agonises over how many Palestinian militants it could release from prison in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, he adds.

The Israeli intelligence services had also issued an alert saying there could be retaliation on the anniversary of the death of Imad Mughniyeh, on 12 February.

However, it was thought that this would target Israeli businessmen or holidaymakers abroad, our correspondent says.

The Haaretz newspaper says that a driver from the West Bank settlement of Kochav Hashahar was seriously wounded when a gunman opened fire on his car on the highway near Ariel in January.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967. It has settled more than 430,000 Jews in the occupied territories.

All settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

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