– By JASON STRAZIUSO and MALKHADIR M. MUHUMED

The Associated Press

NAIROBI, Kenya – The al- Qaida mastermind behind the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania was killed last week at a security checkpoint in Mogadishu by Somali forces who didn’t immediately realize they had killed the most wanted man in East Africa, officials said Saturday.

The death of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed — who topped the FBI’s most wanted list for nearly 13 years — is the third major strike in six weeks against the worldwide terror group, which was headed by Osama bin Laden until his death last month.

Mohammed had a $5 million bounty on his head for allegedly planning the Aug. 7, 1998, embassy bombings. The blasts killed 224 people in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, combined. Most of the dead were Kenyans. Twelve Americans also died.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — who was on a visit to Tanzania on Saturday as Somali officials confirmed Mohammed’s death — called the killing a “significant blow to al-Qaida, 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,” Clinton said.

Mohammed was killed Tuesday but was carrying a South African passport, so Somali officials didn’t immediately realize who he was. The body was even buried. Officials later exhumed it.

“We’ve compared the pictures of the body to his old pictures,” said a spokesman for Somalia’s minister of information, Abdifatah Abdinur. “They are the same. It is confirmed. He is the man and he is dead. The man who died is Fazul Abdullah.”

Mohammed, a native of the Comoros Islands, was carrying sophisticated weapons, maps and other operational materials as well as tens of thousands of dollars when he was killed, said Abdulkareem Jama, the information minister.

Family pictures and correspondence with other militants were also found, he said. The money, equipment and personal effects made officials take a second look at the death, he said.

“We congratulate our army for killing the head of al-Qaida operations in East Africa. They have shown their effectiveness,” he said.

Earlier in the week, a Somali security officer had described to The Associated Press the deaths of two men in Mogadishu, one of whom is now believed to have been Mohammed.

The security official, Osman Nur Diriye, said that two men riding in a luxury car pulled up to a government-run checkpoint Tuesday night. After security forces found a pistol on one of the men, gunfire was exchanged. Diriye said a Somali and a man believed to be South African died. The man identified as a South African is now believed to have been Mohammed, Abdinur said.

Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2 in Pakistan. A month later, Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaida leader sought in the 2008 Mumbai siege and rumored to be a longshot choice to succeed bin Laden, was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone in Pakistan.

It appears Mohammed’s death is not the result of new intelligence, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.