A top Kenyan Al-Qaeda operative wanted by the FBI for the 2002 attacks in Mombasa was killed in a US military raid in southern Somalia on Monday, a US official said.
The official, who asked to remain anonymous, named the dead man as Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. He did not confirm any of the details of the air strike, as US media reported at least one US helicopter was involved.
US media ABC news and Fox News, quoting US officials, said Nabhan was killed when at least one US helicopter fired on a convoy carrying suspected Al-Qaeda targets in southern Somalia.
An American official told ABC that a US Navy ship had been nearby to monitor the situation and provide assistance if needed.
Earlier Somali elders and witnesses said foreign military forces onboard four helicopters staged a raid on a convoy in the small village of Erile, around 200 kilometres (120 miles) south of the capital Mogadishu, shortly after 1:30 pm (1030 GMT). They opened fire on a vehicle, killing people inside.
Al-Qaeda inspired extremists known as the Shebab control the area and are believed to be holding a French agent kidnapped in July.
The FBI website said prior to Monday’s raid that Nabhan, 30, should be considered “armed and dangerous.” Sources told ABC that his body was now in US custody.
“There was a military operation carried out by four foreign choppers in Erile village. A car was destroyed, we are also hearing that some of the vehicle’s passengers were taken on the choppers,” Abdinasir Mohamed Adan, an elder from the nearby village of Barawe, told AFP by phone.
A Western source in Nairobi who asked not to be identified said Nabhan was one of six foreign Al-Qaeda fighters in a convoy of two four-by-four vehicles which included three Shebab fighters.
The convoy was traveling near the village of Roobow, in Barawe district along the coast when it was attacked by the helicopters.
Both vehicles were destroyed and some of the dead were placed on the helicopters, the source said. The identities of the other victims were not provided.
Earlier amid speculation who was behind the raid, a spokesman for French forces present in the region had denied any involvement.
The Shebab are believed to be holding the French agent and are also suspected of involvement in the kidnapping on the Kenyan border of three humanitarian workers a few days later.
Some officials in the area where the strike took place Monday said several foreign fighters were among the passengers of the targeted vehicle.
The Shebab, an Al-Qaeda inspired movement, is spearheading a three-month-old offensive to topple Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and has imposed strict Sharia law in areas under its control.
The US has expressed fear that the Shebab would turn Somalia into an extremist haven similar to the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan — which has been a top priority for the Barack Obama administration.
The Shebab has also provided shelter to several senior Al-Qaeda operatives wanted over the deadly attacks on Israeli targets in Mombasa in 2002 and the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Topping the US wanted list are Fazul Abdullah, a Comoran national sought for his involvement in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks and who escaped a Kenyan raid last year. He is believed to have strong ties with the Shebab.
Israel and the United States, whose top diplomats recently visited the region, have in recent years complained of the slow progress in efforts to hunt down key suspects in the 1998 and 2002 attacks.