REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- An Afghan interpreter who breached the security perimeter at a southern Afghanistan airbase Wednesday tried to run over a squad of U.S. Marines assembled to meet Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta's plane, an American military official said.
The man, who worked for Western troops but has not been named, died early Thursday because of extensive burns, Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti told reporters.
After the incident, U.S. officials initially said it wasn't clear whether it was a premeditated attack.
PHOTOS: Afghanistan shooting
But Scaparrotti said Thursday he believed that the interpreter, who died before he could be questioned, was carrying out an attack when he stole a pickup, drove onto the runway ramp as Panetta's plane was landing, and emerged from his vehicle in flames.
The incident is the latest attempt to attack Americans by Afghans in the military or working for the coalition since the accidental burning of Korans last month by U.S. soldiers.
"My personal opinion is yes, I think he had an intent to harm. I think he tried to hit people," Scaparrotti said at a news conference with reporters traveling with Panetta. The Defense secretary met Thursday with President Hamid Karzai in the capital.
Scaparrotti added that there was no evidence that the attack was aimed at Panetta's plane. But the timing of the incident suggested that the attacker may have intended to target the plane's arrival at the airbase, whether or not he knew Panetta was aboard.
The driver was carrying a canister containing some kind of fuel that he appeared to have ignited after the car ran into a ditch following his attempt to run over the Marines, Scaparrotti said.
"There was some kind of container. It may have had fuel in it in the car," he said.
The man stole the truck on the base, injuring a British soldier in the process, officials said.
[Updated, 4:31 a.m. March 15: A military dog was slightly burned "in pursuit and the restraint of the driver," a military official said.]
Aides to Panetta withheld public news about the incident for nine hours Wednesday and insisted Panetta was never in danger.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta greets troops after his plane landed Wednesday at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. Credit: Scott Olson / Associated Press