Bombers who lured police in Northern Ireland into a booby trap by claiming a woman was being attacked have been branded "the lowest of the low".
The officers who raced to a wooded area of south Belfast following a bogus 999 call around midnight survived only because the bomb they tripped failed to detonate.
Detectives hunting those behind the murder bid have said the bomb and wire attached to a gate at the scene could easily have killed police or members of the public.
The failed attack in a residential area of Annadale Embankment is being blamed on dissident republicans opposed to the peace process. Earlier this month the same extremists murdered Pc Ronan Kerr, who died after a bomb exploded under his car in Omagh, Co Tyrone.
Superintendent Chris Noble said the officers had called army bomb experts to the scene of the latest alert once they spotted the device.
Mr Noble said: "They confirmed it was viable, and indeed it was capable of serious injury and indeed death."
He added: "Serious injury and death, not just to the police officers who were responding to a 999 call about a woman in distress, but also serious injury and death to a number of potential runners in the area, to people who could have been walking dogs, who regularly go through the wooded area, and indeed, that gate."
Democratic Unionist member Jimmy Spratt, who sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board which oversees the police service, condemned the attack.
"Those responsible are the lowest of the low and should be utterly condemned," he said.
"Officers arrived at this scene expecting to be coming to the aid of a vulnerable woman in distress.
"Instead there was a viable explosive device designed to kill them.
"Terrorists were trying to use police officers' commitment to serve the community to lead them to their deaths. These are the actions of cowards."
Sinn Fein policing board member Alex Maskey said the bomb was an attack "on both the community and the peace process".
"It was placed in an area that is frequented by the public and could easily have led to the loss of life," he said.
"Those involved in planting this device are engaged in a futile attempt to destroy the progress that has been made and which has the overwhelming support of the people of this island.
"This action and those responsible for it must be totally rejected. I am calling upon those involved to stop and to stop now."
Police received the bogus 999 call at 11.50pm last night and officers were sent to the scene, which is on a busy road and is opposite allotments which are often in use.
Officers arriving at the wooded area quickly realised it was empty and only then discovered the bomb attached to the gate they had just entered.
Army technical officers were called to the scene at about 1.30am and the police helicopter was launched.
Detectives have now appealed for anyone with information to come forward.
Police are on high alert for attacks by dissident republicans following the death of Pc Kerr.
In the days following his murder on April 2, it emerged hundreds of motorists were allowed to drive past a van containing a 500lb bomb in Newry.
The underpass on the main Belfast to Dublin Road was closed after the suspect vehicle was found by police on April 7, but cones were later removed.
Police said the cordon had been removed by motorists.
They described the 500lb bomb as "sophisticated and substantial".
Dissidents are believed to have stepped up their activity in Northern Ireland ahead of the May 5 Assembly elections.
Policing Board acting-chairman Brian Rea urged people to be vigilant after the discovery of the latest booby trap.
"These police officers were responding to a call for assistance and it is simply fortuitous that this device did not detonate," he said.
"Whilst it is believed the target was police, given the location, this could easily have been detonated by a member of the public passing through. With the people responsible for leaving this and other devices showing complete recklessness, there is a need for community vigilance and support for police at this time.
"The device was placed in a busy area so if anyone noticed anything suspicious then that information should be brought to the police."