(KABUL, Afghanistan) — In a bizarre security scare on a coalition base in Afghanistan on Wednesday, defense officials said an Afghan civilian managed to steal a truck, crash it, but then continue to apparently try to attack Western soldiers even though he was on fire — all while U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sat on a military transport plane on a nearby airstrip.
The incident occurred at Camp Bastion at just about the same time Panetta arrived to address troops there in a high profile visit. The suspect, who has not been identified and appears to have been working alone, stole a truck from a British soldier and sped onto the runway where Panetta’s plane had landed before he crashed the truck into a ditch, the officials said. The British soldier purportedly suffered a broken pelvis during the theft.
The man somehow caught on fire in the course of escaping the wreck — one NATO official said he is suspected of lighting himself on fire — and then jumped on the side of a vehicle belonging to soldiers responding to the scene, according to several officials. Soldiers from the base’s security detail eventually managed to tackle the man to the ground and put out the flames.
Pentagon spokesperson Capt. John Kirby said that at no point was Panetta in danger and an investigation into the apparent attacker’s motive is ongoing. No explosives or weapons were found in the vehicle or with the driver, Kirby said.
“We don’t know the intent or motivation of the individual who stole the vehicle and stole it across a ramp,” he told reporters. “We don’t’ have any indication right now that this was meant as a threat to the secretary — as a fact we don’t have any indication that the driver knew who was coming in on that aircraft. At no time was the secretary’s safety in danger or the danger of anyone in the secretary’s party.”
Panetta’s plane was made aware of the incident and was taken to a different spot to unload. The Pentagon alerted the press to the incident 10 hours later, after reports began leaking to the British press.
Nerves over security already appeared to be frayed during Panetta’s visit as earlier, U.S. Marines were given the unusual request to lay down their weapons before entering the tent in the Helmand province where Panetta was scheduled to speak. Panetta was in the area to meet with tribal leaders in nearby villages to assure them that the U.S. mission was on track.
The airstrip security scare comes within days of an attack by a U.S. Army staff sergeant went off base and allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Steve Almasy, CNN
Oren Liebermann, CNN
Sheena McKenzie, CNN
Holly Yan and Nadeem Muaddi, CNN