Christmas came early for NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military announced Saturday that it has killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Osmani, the most senior Taliban leader to be eliminated since American troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

A U.S. military spokesman said a targeted air strike hit Osmani as he traveled in a vehicle near the Pakistan border in southern Helmand province. Killed with him were two associates also in the vehicle.

A Taliban spokesman has denied Osmani was killed in the air strike Tuesday, and the U.S. military hasn't revealed how it identified the body.

But if true, it's an important strike.

"Osmani was in the top ring of the Taliban leadership, and he was also a close associate of Osama bin Laden," said Col. Tom Collins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. "His death is a major achievement in the fight against extremists and their terrorist networks."

Osmani was believed to be one of the top three Taliban leaders who took charge of organizing military operations in southern Afghanistan. He played a leading role in facilitating suicide attacks against NATO troops and Afghan civilians that left almost 4,000 dead in 2006 alone.