Somali police said on Saturday that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of Africa's most wanted al-Qaida operatives, was killed in the capital of the Horn of Africa country on Tuesday.

Mohammed was reputed to be the head of al-Qaida 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.

Mohammed is also believed to have masterminded the suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya in November 2002 that killed 15 people, including three Israeli tourists.

That attack also included a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli plane taking off from the Mombasa airport.

Police said they shot Mohammed at a checkpoint in Mogadishu after an exchange of fire at midnight on Tuesday.

The U.S. says several al-Qaida members involved in the embassy bombings sought sanctuary in neighboring Somalia, where Islamist al-Shabaab insurgents, who claim links to al-Qaida, 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 said that the killing of Mohammed was a significant blow to al-Qaida and its allies.

"Harun Fazul's death is a significant blow to al-Qaida, its extremist allies, and its operations in East Africa," Clinton 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."

Kenya's Anti Terrorism Police Unit head Nicholas Kamwende told Reuters in Nairobi he had been informed of Mohammed's killing by U.S. embassy sources in Nairobi.

"He was killed on Tuesday midnight in the southern suburbs of Mogadishu at Ex-control police 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.

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-Qaida, said: "It might tone down their capability in the region. He would have been the top man to
bring in resources and coordinate operations."

Wrong road

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 check-point thinking it was manned by al-Shabaab. When he realized he was in the wrong place, he opened fire at police who shot back.

"That was the end of the lives of Fazul and his friend," Aden said.

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.

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-Qaida in east Africa," he said.

"Likewise, al-Shabaab has its own ties with the nearest effective al-Qaida branch, the Yemen-centered al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula," J. Peter Pham said.

Mohammed was cited as a possible successor to Osama bin Laden after the al-Qaida leader was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan in May.