Some are calling it an assassination attempt, after an Afghan man drove a stolen vehicle onto the runway as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta landed for a scheduled visit Wednesday morning, but Pentagon officials aren't quick to confirm it was an intentional attack.
"It's too early to say right now. It may have been a coincidence," said Gary Kolb, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan
The Washington Post reported the incident as “a possible attempt to attack the plane of Defense Secretary,” calling it one of the “most serious security breaches during an unannounced visit by a U.S. Cabinet member to a war zone in recent years.”
Only one service member and the driver of the truck were injured. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said no one in Panetta’s party was injured.
Panetta was landing at Camp Bastion, a British airfield that sits next to Camp Leatherneck, a large U.S. Marine base in the Helmand province when the man rammed through a fence, sped onto the runway, crashed into a ditch, and then emerged on fire from the pickup truck. Media reports say the vehicle burst into flames as it approached Panetta’s plane. Defense Department Press Secretary George Little says the vehicle never exploded.
A Camp Bastion hospital spokesperson identified the man as a civilian employed by British forces in Afghanistan, ITN news reported.
“Base personnel put the fire out and he was immediately treated for burn injuries," Little said. Little said he didn’t know the man’s motive and it had not been determined if he was a suicide bomber, but that Panetta was never in danger. His flight was diverted to another runway.
The Associated Press reports that a service member saw the man stealing the truck and tried to stop him, but the Afghan man hit him with the truck as he drove off.
Immediately after the incident, Camp Bastion was put on lockdown and on-base patrols were established, but Pentagon officials didn’t notify the press until more than 10 hours later after reports of the incident were leaked to the British press.
Panetta was arriving in Afghanistan for a scheduled, but unannounced, visit to Camp Leatherneck. Kirby said there is no indication that that it was an attempted attack and that no explosives were found on the vehicle or the driver. The incident is still under ivestigation.
photo: Afghan troops wait to board helicopters at Camp Bastion from isafmedia/flickr