(Reuters) - Somali police said on Saturday that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of Africa's most wanted al Qaeda operatives, was killed in the capital of the Horn of Africa country on Tuesday.
Mohammed was reputed to be the head of al Qaeda in east Africa, operated in Somalia and is accused of playing a lead role in the 1998 embassy attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which killed 240 people.
Police said they shot Mohammed at a checkpoint in Mogadishu after an exchange of fire at midnight on Tuesday.
Washington says several al Qaeda members involved in the embassy bombings sought sanctuary in neighbouring Somalia, where Islamist al Shabaab insurgents, who claim links to al Qaeda, are fighting a weak Western-backed administration.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
"We have confirmed he was killed by our police at a control checkpoint this week," Halima Aden, a senior national security officer, told Reuters in Mogadishu.
"He had a fake South African passport and of course other documents. After thorough investigation, we confirmed it was him, and then we buried his corpse," Aden said.
The United States had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of the Comorian, who spoke five languages and was said to be a master of disguise, forgery and bomb making.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the killing.
"Harun Fazul's death is a significant blow to al Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa," she told reporters while on a visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
"It is a just end for a terrorist who brought so much death and pain to so many innocents in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and elsewhere -- Tanzanians, Kenyans, Somalis and our own embassy personnel."
A senior U.S. official in Washington added that his killing removed one of the group "most experienced operational planners in East Africa and has almost certainly set back operations".
U.S. officials say Mohammed, believed to be in his mid 30s, also masterminded an attack on an Israeli-owned hotel along Kenya's coast in November 2002 that killed 15 people.
Mohammed sought sanctuary among mixed-race, minority communities that live in villages dotted along the coast between Mogadishu and the Kenya border, where his Comoran looks blended in well with the coast's Benadir and Bajuni people of mixed Somali, Arab, Persian, Portuguese and Malay ancestry.
Aden said Mohammed may have intended to take a road that diverted into an al Shabaab base, but mistook the road and stopped at the checkpoint -- the southernmost point controlled by the government before passing into al Shabaab territory -- thinking it was manned by al Shabaab.
When he realised he was in the wrong place, he opened fire at police who shot back.
"He was killed on Tuesday midnight in the southern suburbs of Mogadishu at
(a) checkpoint. Another Somali armed man was driving him in a four-wheel drive when he accidentally drove up to the checkpoint," Aden said.
"We had his pictures and so we cross-checked with his face. He had thousands of dollars. He also had a laptop and a modified AK-47," he said.
A U.S. official familiar with the events said: "He was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time -- for him, that is. It was the right place and time for enemies of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups."
There was no immediate comment from Somali's transitional government, which was rocked on Friday by the killing of the country's interior minister claimed by al Shabaab rebels.
A Western security source in east Africa, speaking about al Shabaab as well as al Qaeda, said: "It might tone down their capability in the region. He would have been the top man to bring in resources and coordinate operations."
J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said that Mohammed's death would have little impact operationally on the Islamist insurgency in Somalia, which is led by al Shabaab.
"Even the foreign fighters present in Somalia are under Shabaab control, rather than the aegis of al Qaeda in east Africa," he said.
"Likewise, al Shabaab has its own ties with the nearest effective al Qaeda branch, the Yemen-centered al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," J. Peter Pham said. (Additional reporting and writing by James Macharia in Nairobi; Mark Hosenball and William Maclean in London; Editing by Alison Williams)
Somalia Says Killed Top Al Qaeda African Operative
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