REPORTING FROM A U.S. AIRCRAFT -- An attempted attack Wednesday at a southern Afghanistan air base targeted a top Marine commander and his British deputy as they stood near the runway awaiting an airplane carrying Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, a senior Defense official acknowledged Friday.
Maj. Gen Mark Gurganus, the Marine commander in Helmand Province, and Brig. Stuart Skeates were lined up waiting at 11:15 a.m. as Panetta's plane taxied toward them when a stolen Toyota Hi-Lux truck careened onto the runway ramp, scattering the group, the official said.
"The welcoming party took evasive action," the official said.
Pentagon officials and military commanders did not disclose these and other details about the incident at Camp Bastion for two days, apparently to play down the seriousness of the security breach. Panetta's plane was abruptly diverted to another part of the air base after the pilot was told of the unfolding incident.
Had the incident occurred several minutes later, Panetta likely would have been on the tarmac in the path of the oncoming vehicle.
The senior official called that scenario "hypothetical," adding that U.S. military investigators continue to believe it is unlikely the attacker, an Afghan interpreter who worked at Camp Bastion, knew Panetta was on the plane, a gray U.S. Air Force C-17.
Whether the driver knew Panetta was arriving or not, the botched attack appeared to be one of the most serious security incidents involving the Defense secretary in years. It came after several other incidents, including the killing of 16 Afghan civilians allegedly by a U.S. soldier, that have strained U.S.-Afghan ties and raised concerns about security on U.S. installations.
The official provided the additional details Friday on the condition that he not be identified because he was discussing a continuing investigation.
After scattering the welcoming party, the truck came to a halt in a ditch and the driver set himself on fire, apparently when fuel he was carrying in a container ignited. He was apprehended after fleeing the vehicle but later died as a result of his severe burns.
A gas can and a lighter were later found in the vehicle, the official said. Base personnel noticed smoke rising from the area where Panetta's plane was supposed to park, leading to the decision to radio the pilot and divert him to another location, the official said.
No one in the welcoming party was injured. Panetta was told quickly that there was a security breach, but he did not get more details until hours later, the official said.
"He was aware that an incident had occurred, but that is it," the official said.
Gurganus and Skeates greeted Panetta's plane at the alternate location several minutes later. "Welcome to our humble home. How do you like it so far?" Gurganus said, chuckling, in an apparent reference to the incident.
But he did not mention the incident when he briefed reporters a little over an hour later and there was no official acknowledgment of the incident for another nine hours. Asked whether security in Helmand Province had been affected by the killing of 16 Afghans a few days earlier, Gurganus said there had been no protests or security problems.
"We've not so much as even had a two-man protest at this point in time," Gurganus said. "You can't get a whole lot safer than right here when you're surrounded by everyone else on the base."
The attacker, whose name has not been released, had stolen the truck, a British military vehicle, a half hour before Panetta's arrival at Camp Leatherneck, a U.S. Marine base adjoining Camp Bastion. He stole the vehicle from a British soldier.
In the aftermath of the botched attack, U.S. military investigators detained three other Afghans who worked as interpreters at Camp Bastion for questioning, including the attacker's father and brother, the official said.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta greets military personnel Friday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, before boarding his plane to return to Washington. The UAE was Panetta's final stop on a tour that included Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. Credit: Scott Olson / Associated Press