NAIROBI, Kenya—When thundering explosions rattled a small Somali town during a meeting of Islamist insurgent leaders, it sent them scurrying for safety. An international military appears to have launched the powerful, well-timed attack, but no one will admit it.
The two top possibilities -- the U.S. and French militaries -- both deny responsibility. Officials from the two countries even suggested it might be the other.
Sunday night's explosion in Afgoye, a heavily populated corridor along a main road leading out of the Somali capital came as Somalia's al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab militia is fighting to defend itself on two fronts. African Union soldiers have taken over the capital of Mogadishu, and Kenyan soldiers crossed the border into southern Somalia last month.
But neither Kenya nor the AU force -- known as AMISOM -- was likely to have launched the attack, said Lauren Gelfand, the Africa and Middle East editor of Jane's Defense Weekly.
"To have that kind of strike capability is completely beyond AMISOM. They have no air support," said Gelfand. "The Kenyan F5s (jets) do have the capability, but whether they have the precision is unlikely."
None of the militant leaders were believed to have been killed.
Kenya's military spokesman said Kenya was not behind the Sunday strike. Kenya has acknowledged other bombing raids in recent weeks.
"The Americans do have the assets required for a targeted strike in the region, as do the French," said Gelfand. "(The French) have a base in Djibouti from which they launch their tactical support to the European Union's anti-piracy operations."
Both the United States and France have motives for launching a missile at al-Shabab's leaders.
The U.S. lists al-Shabab as a terrorist organization and has previously killed its leaders or al-Qaida operatives among them with either missile strikes or a special forces helicopter raid. U.S. officials are alarmed by al-Shabab's recruitment of young Americans. Most, but not all, are the children of Somali immigrants.
Al-Shabab leader Ahmed Abdi Mohamed Godane, also known as Abu Zubayr, was meeting other senior leaders in Afgoye when the explosion happened, said one senior Somali official. He said that witnesses said it seemed to "come from the sky" but that it was difficult to get information from the site because al-Shabab fighters blocked it off.
Godane has encouraged the militia's ties to al-Qaida in the face of reluctance from other leaders.
The official, like the other officials interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Despite the U.S. concerns, a senior U.S. official at the Pentagon denied that America was behind the Afgoye attack. Another U.S. official suggested it was more likely to be France, which also has warships and military assets in the region.
The French are not known to have previously launched missiles into Somalia but have carried out commando raids immediately after the release of French hostages by Somali pirates. Last month Somali gunmen abducted an elderly French woman from her home on Kenya's coast. She died shortly afterward. Another French hostage, a military official, has been held for more than two years.
But a French official said France does not have the capability to launch missiles from a drone and that there were no French warships in the area at the time. He said the strike appeared to be a U.S. operation.
Kenyan officials have said they are not receiving much international assistance for their operations in Somalia, although Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said that he had received some promises of support from Israel during a visit earlier this week.
Al-Qaida tried to shoot down an Israeli jetliner in Kenya in 2002 and bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel on Kenya's coast at the same time, killing 13 people.
Kenya previously bought three Herons, a type of unmanned aerial vehicle used for reconnaissance, from Israel in 2009. An international diplomat said one crashed several months ago over the port city of Kismayo, the insurgent's main stronghold.
A Kenyan military spokesman said he was unable to comment.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.