In a bizarre security scare on a coalition base in Afghanistan today, 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 sat nearby on a military transport plane.
The incident occurred at a Camp Bastion airstrip 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.
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 200 Marines were inside a tent at Camp Leatherneck along with Afghan guards and troops from other countries waiting for Panetta to arrive when they were told abruptly by Sgt. Major Brandon Hall to exit the tent, leave their weapons elsewhere, and return unarmed.
It's an unusual break from protocol since Marines are expected to be armed at all times.
Afghan guards in the room, along with other foreign troops, were also unarmed during Panetta's address. A defense official told reporters there was no heightened threat, but that the order to disarm was done to be "consistent" so that Americans troops wouldn't be the only ones carrying weapons. The request reportedly did not come from Panetta or his team.
The order for the Marines to put down their weapons came from Major Gen. Mark Gurganus, according to a press pool report.
Gurganus said that since the Afghan soldiers were unarmed, he did not want them treated differently, but said it was not because of the shooting this weekend.
"You've got one of the most important people in the world in the room," he said. "This is not a big deal."
This is Panetta's third trip to Afghanistan, and arguably, his most important. The visit was planned months in advance, but carries additional significance. It comes at a time of deeply strained U.S.-Afghan relations, and just days after a U.S. Army staff sergeant went off base and allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians in their homes.
Addressing NATO troops at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta addressed the massacre directly, which included nine children and three women, some of whose bodies were found with deep burn marks.
"We will not allow individual incidents to undermine our resolve," he said. "We will be tested, we will be challenged by the enemy, by ourselves, and by the hell of war itself," he said.
He added, "Our strategy is working."
The visit comes with many Afghans calling for a public trial for the soldier accused of the weekend's massacre. The U.S. military has launched an investigation with the highest levels of the administration, including President Obama himself, promising a swift and thorough response. Many Afghans continue to believe that more than one soldier was involved, citing eyewitness reports that multiple soldiers were seen in the area at the time of the shootings. But today, an Afghan official with access to surveillance video taken from a blimp overhead said the footage clearly shows a lone U.S. soldier walking up to the base, laying down his weapon, and raising his arms to surrender.
The soldier, a staff sergeant and father of two based at Ft. Lewis, Wash., was a three-time veteran of the Iraq war on his first assignment to Afghanistan. The U.S. military hasn't released his name.
The Taliban quickly vowed revenge for the slayings. In a strongly worded statement posted on their website, the insurgent group threatened to kill and behead the "sadistic murderous soldiers" behind the attack.