MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Suspected foreign commandos in helicopters attacked a car in southern Somalia on Monday and killed one of the region's most wanted militants, witnesses and a Somali government source said.
Kenya-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, 28, was wanted over a hotel bombing and simultaneous, but botched, missile attack on an Israeli airliner leaving Kenya's Mombasa airport in 2002.
A senior Somali government source in Mogadishu told Reuters the fugitive had been riding in a car with other Islamist insurgents when they were attacked near Roobow village in Barawe District, some 250 km (155 miles) south of the capital.
"Nabhan and four other top foreign commanders of militant groups were killed in the raid," the source said.
"These young fighters do not have the same skills as their colleagues in Afghanistan or elsewhere when it comes to foreign airstrikes," the government source added.
"They are in confusion now. I hope the world takes action."
Local man Bashir Abdi said the foreign commandos who carried out the raid were wearing French flags on the shoulders of their uniforms. But a spokesman for the French Defence Ministry, Christophe Prazuck, denied any French soldiers were involved.
"We don't have any military presence in that region ... there are no forces in that territory," Prazuck said in Paris.
Western security agencies say the failed Horn of Africa state has become a safe haven for militants, including foreign jihadists, who use it to plot attacks in the region and beyond.
Nabhan is believed to have owned the truck used in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned beach hotel in Kenya that killed 15 people. He is then thought to have fled to Somalia.
AL QAEDA SUSPECTS
The United States says another leading al Qaeda suspect who may be in Somalia, Sudanese explosives expert Abu Talha al-Sudani, is believed to have orchestrated the Mombasa attack.
Several residents and insurgent sources in Barawe said Nabhan was among those killed in Monday's operation, but they declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
French forces have launched commando raids in Somalia in the past to rescue French nationals held by rebels and pirates. Paris maintains a large military base in neighbouring Djibouti.
Last month, one of two French security advisers kidnapped by Somali insurgents in July managed to escape from his captors and fled to the presidential palace in Mogadishu.
Neither the Somali government nor rebels have helicopters.
The U.S. military has also launched airstrikes inside Somalia, targeting individuals Washington blames for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1988.
In May last year, U.S. war planes killed the then-leader of al Shabaab and al Qaeda's top man in the country, Afghan-trained Aden Hashi Ayro, in an attack on the central town of Dusamareb.
Under Ayro, al Shabaab had adopted Iraq-style tactics, including assassinations, roadside bombs and suicide bombings.
Somalia's fragile U.N.-backed government faces a stubborn insurgency by al Shabaab and others. The United States accuses al Shabaab of being al Qaeda's proxy in the lawless country.
Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed's administration controls only small parts of the nation's drought-ridden region and a few districts of the bullet-scarred coastal capital.
Violence has killed more than 18,000 Somalis since the start of 2007 and driven another 1.5 million from their homes.
That has triggered one of the world's worst aid emergencies, with the number of people needing help leaping 17.5 percent in a year to 3.76 million or half the population.