The Afghan driver of a stolen pickup truck burst into flames near the runway of a British base in Afghanistan at about the time U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s plane arrived today, according to Pentagon spokesman George Little.
There is no indication that the incident at Camp Bastion was an intended attack on Panetta, Little told reporters traveling with Panetta in Kabul. “At no time was the secretary or the secretary’s delegation in any danger whatsoever,” Little said.
As security personnel arrived at the scene, they found the driver ablaze, and no explosives were found on him or in the vehicle, Little said.
“There’s no evidence right now that the driver had any idea who was on that aircraft,” John Kirby, a Defense Department spokesman, said in an interview at the Pentagon, according to a pool report.
The incident coincides with a string of attacks pitting Afghans and Americans against each other and casting doubt on the Obama administration’s claims of progress in the war and plans to extend their joint efforts after the bulk of foreign troops exit at the end of 2014.
One Afghan coalition service member was hit by the vehicle and injured when it was being stolen, Kirby said. The driver is being treated for “considerable” burn wounds, according to Little.
The alleged perpetrator of the “stolen vehicle event” was apprehended by base security personnel, according to a statement from the International Security Assistance Force.
Little said the matter is under investigation. Initial reports from the U.K.’s Daily Mail and Sky News described the event as a suspected car bomb attack.
“It’s my understanding that the car itself never caught on fire and did not explode,” Little said.
The vehicle was a small pickup truck and was moving at high speed, according to Kirby. The truck ended up on a ramp used to access the runway, Little said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may have been the target of a suicide attack at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, according to multiple news reports.
A vehicle got on to the runway and burst into flames as Panetta's plane landed this morning. Whether it was a suicide attack remains unconfirmed.
The events happened a few hours ago on the sprawling base — which is Britain's main outpost in the zone.
Panetta flew into Afghanistan as part of a multi-day visit that was previously planned, but comes on the heels of a massacre of 16 Afghans — mostly women and children — allegedly by a U.S. service member on a rampage. Panetta has been trying to quell fears about the shooting, and resume delicate withdrawal talks with the Afghan government.
As his plane was landing, a vehicle appeared on the runway and subsequently caught fire.
Sources at the scene told Britain's The Sun it was a suicide attack — but those allegations have not been officially confirmed.
A NATO soldier was injured in the incident, AFP reported, but gave no details. There was at least one report that a pickup truck ran into the soldier.
Capt. John Kirby told Fox News Channel in Washington that a pickup was involved and that it was stolen.
He said it was speeding toward the location where Panetta was supposed to land at the camp, located in Helmand province. It apparently ran into a ditch and caught fire.
The Afghan driver was taken to a military hospital with burns over most of his body. No explosives were found in the truck.
"We have no confirmation that this speeding vehicle posed a threat to the secretary's health," Kirby said.
Panetta's plane was diverted after it landed and before it was parked, according to a report from the scene.
London's Telegraph is reporting that the Afghan worker managed to get through security around the airfield in the middle of the base and onto the runway.
He managed to break through a perimeter surrounded by armed security guards and large concrete blocks.
Initial military reports indicate there were no explosives inside the vehicle at Camp Bastion. The car was heading toward a welcoming committee for Panetta when it burst into flames and the alleged perpetrator was arrested.
Clearly security has been increased in Afghanistan for Panetta's visit, which happens at one of the most tense times in U.S.-Afghan relations.
Marines at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan were asked to disarm on Tuesday before a speech by the defense secretary.
The move was a highly unsual security measure.
Panetta's visit was planned months ago, long before the weekend slaughter that claimed the lives of the 16 villagers.
The trip, however, propeled Panetta into the center of escalating anti-American anger and set the stage for some difficult discussions with Afghan leaders.
There were clear concerns about security in the large tent at Camp Leatherneck where Panetta was slated to talk to troops.
Before Panetta came into the hall, Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall told the more than 200 Marines in the room to take their weapons outside and leave them there. Afghan troops had already been told not to bring their guns in.
"Something has come to light," Hall told the troops. It was a highly unusual order, and some in the audience said they had never seen that happen before.
Asked about the order, Hall said all he knew was that "I was told to get the weapons out."
A U.S. defense official said the request was not a reaction to an immediate threat. Speaking on condition of anonymity to describe security procedures, the official said the base commander made the decision that no one would be allowed to bring in weapons.
The official said the decision was made out of respect for troops from other countries, such as the Afghans, who are never allowed to bring guns into an event. It was not a request from Panetta or his security team, the official said.
Panetta met with several Afghan provincial leaders, and told them the primary mission is to prepare for the transition to Afghan security control.
He acknowledged there will continue to be challenges from the enemy as well as issues between U.S. and Afghan allies, but said everyone must remain committed.
The military has detained an Army staff sergeant in connection with Sunday's massacre. An Afghan official said Tuesday that surveillance video showed the sergeant walking up to his base and raising his arms in surrender.
Panetta and other U.S. officials say the shooting spree should not derail the U.S. and NATO strategy of a gradual withdrawal of troops by the end of 2014. But it has further soured relations with war-weary Afghans, jeopardizing the U.S. strategy of working closely with Afghan forces so they can take over their country's security.
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