(WASHINGTON) — The Pentagon is claiming that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was never in danger Wednesday after a stolen truck wound up on a runway ramp as Panetta’s plane was touching down in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Officials at the British military airfield said the driver, described as a trusted Afghan interpreter, had stolen the truck from a soldier and run him over. The driver then lost control of the vehicle and went into a ditch where he lit himself on fire and emerged engulfed in flames.
The driver later died from his burn wounds.
No explosives were found in the truck nor on the driver, but it appears the suspect may have had a container of gas in his vehicle.
It’s believed the driver’s mission was to maul down a group of U.S. Marines who were at the airfield to greet Panetta.
A Pentagon spokesman told reporters that it was unclear at first how the truck wound up on the runway and whether the driver had planned a suicide attack. Panetta was informed about the incident later and went on with his schedule of activities.
The defense chief arrived in Afghanistan on Wednesday for a pre-planned two-day visit during one of the most critical periods of U.S.-Afghan relations — tensions have been mounting after a U.S. Army staff sergeant allegedly went on a rampage earlier this week, killing 16 Afghan civilians.
Panetta, who was clearly disturbed by the incident, told American forces in Helmand that the massacre would not change the Obama administration’s plans to pull out 23,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer and to have the remaining 68,000 withdrawn by sometime in 2014.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Angela Dewan and Euan McKirdy, CNN
Mohammed Tawfeeq and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
Dave Gilbert, CNN
Ben Westcott, CNN