MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Somali police said on Saturday that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Africa's most wanted al Qaeda operative, was killed in the capital of the Horn of Africa country Tuesday.
Mohammed was reputed to run al Qaeda in east Africa, operated in Somalia and evaded capture for over a decade after being accused of playing a lead role in the 1998 U.S. 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 Tuesday in the chaotic country where Mohammed, also known as Harun, an accomplished linguist and computer expert with at least 18 aliases, is believed to have been hiding for most of the past decade.
Washington says several al Qaeda members involved in the embassy bombings sought sanctuary in Somalia's south, its most violent region.
Somalia, Kenya's northern neighbor, 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.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters: "Harun Fazul's death is a significant blow to al Qaeda, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa."
"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," she said on a visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
A senior U.S. official in Washington said that his killing removed one of the group's "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.
At times, Somali sources say, Mohammed hid 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.
These accounts fit with Mohammed's well-known method of "hiding in plain sight." Adopting the guise of an itinerant Islamic preacher, he settled in an isolated Kenyan coastal village, Siyu, near Somalia's south, in 2002, evading detection for months before and after the hotel bombing.
Shortly after, he slipped into southern Somalia. Local residents said that every morning Mohammed exercised on a beach near Gendershe before he left to live just south of Mogadishu.
But in recent years he was believed to have been more often under the protection of al Shabaab fighters in inland areas.
Tuesday, 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 realized he was in the wrong place, he opened fire at police who shot back.
"He was killed 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 Friday by the killing of the country's interior minister claimed by al Shabaab rebels.
U.S.-based Somalia expert Abdi Samatar said the killing would not affect the security situation much in the short term.
"But over time the gradual loss of skilled people like him and the relatively shrinking spaces they control in Mogadishu and the population's disgust with them will do the needed damage," he told Reuters.
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 Louise Ireland