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NAIROBI, Kenya - U.S. commandos killed one of the most wanted Islamic militants in Africa in a daylight raid in southern Somalia on Monday, U.S. and Somali officials said, an indication of the Obama administration's willingness to use force against al-Qaida's growing influence in the region.

Western intelligence agents have described the militant, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, as the ringleader of an al-Qaida cell in Kenya responsible for the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002. Nabhan also may have played a role in the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

U.S. military forces have been hunting him for years, and on Monday, about 1 p.m., Somali villagers near the town of Baraawe said four military helicopters suddenly materialized over the horizon and shot at two trucks rumbling through the desert.

The trucks were carrying leaders of al-Shabab, an Islamist extremist group fighting to take over Somalia. The Shabab work hand-in-hand with foreign terrorists, according to Western and Somali intelligence agents.

The helicopters disabled the trucks, according to villagers, and several of the Shabab fighters tried to fire back. Shabab leaders said six foreign fighters, including Nabhan, were quickly killed, along with three Somali Shabab.

U.S. officials on Monday confirmed that special operations commandos, operating from a nearby U.S. warship, participated in the helicopter raid.

Under the Bush administration, the U.S. military used long-range cruise missiles and AC-130 gunships to conduct strikes against terror suspects in Somalia. One American adviser said the decision to use commandos and not missiles in this case may reflect a shift by the Obama administration to go to greater lengths to avoid civilian deaths. In the past, many Somali villagers have been killed by U.S. cruise missiles.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation was secret.