A District of Columbia policewoman was shot and critically wounded on a Northeast street last night as she sought to question a suspect in a recent armed robbery, D.C. police officials reported.

Officials said Officer Pauline V. Howard, 27, was shot once in the lower abdomen shortly after 7:30 p.m. at 19th Street and Benning Road NE. Howard fell into the street behind her parked patrol car and managed to summon help with a portable radio as the gunman -- described as short, bearded and in his early 20s -- fled south on 19th Street.

Within minutes, scores of police officers launched an intensive search of nearby buildings and alleys, but there had been no arrest as of early today.

Howard was taken by ambulance to The Washington Hospital Center where she underwent more than four hours of surgery. Hospital officials described her condition early this morning as critical but stable.

The shooting was the second within a week of a D.C. police officer on duty. Last Tuesday, Officer Donald G. Luning was shot to death during a struggle with a man he had stopped to question about a stolen car.

A 19-year-old Northeast man was charged with homicide within hours of Luning's slaying after police cornered him in an apartment building at 37th and Hayes streets NE, near where the shooting occurred. Luning, an 11-year-veteran of the force, was buried Friday with more than 1,200 officers from around the country in attendance. He was the first D.C. policeman to be killed in the line of duty since February 1980, when Officer Arthur P. Snyder was fatally shot while trying to make a drug arrest on 14th Street NW.

D.C. police chief Maurice Turner and other top police officials arrived at the Hospital Center last night within minutes of the ambulance transporting Howard. Looking drawn and weary, Turner declined to discuss the incident at length, telling reporters only that it had a "tremendous impact on him," coming as it did just two weeks after the death of his father and less than a week after the slaying of Officer Luning.

According to police officials, the incident began after the manager of a carryout restaurant near 19th and Benning telephoned police that a man he believed had robbed the restaurant a few days ago was standing at the intersection.

Howard, a six-year veteran of the force, was sent to investigate. After interviewing the manager, she parked her patrol car and got out to question the suspect. Exactly what happened next was unclear last night, but officials said that there apparently was a brief exchange of words between the two and that the man, seemingly without provocation, drew a small handgun and fired two shots at the officer. Howard had not drawn her service revolver, officials said.

A bystander at the scene, Ricky Battle, 19, of Northeast Washington, told a reporter he had seen the man talking on a pay telephone at the intersection when Howard approached him. Battle said he then heard two shots and saw the policewoman clutch her abdomen.

Another local resident, James Carroll, 62, said he was in his home near the intersection, when the sound of gunfire brought him outside. He said he saw the officer on the ground behind her patrol car, screaming into a radio. "I heard her scream and say, 'I'm shot,' " Carroll said.