REPORTING FROM CAMP BASTION, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers were ordered not to bring their weapons into a tent where Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was speaking Wednesday.
The extra security precautions, apparently in response to the shooting Sunday of 16 Afghans, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, were announced abruptly as a crowd of several hundred Marines awaited Panetta's arrival.
Marine Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall announced that Marines should exit the tent and leave their rifles and pistols outside because "something has come to light."
Hall said later he did not know why the unusual order was given. American troops in war zones typically are seen armed when U.S. officials visit.
"Somebody got itchy," Hall said. "All I know is, I was told to get the weapons out."
Troops from Afghanistan and other countries in the crowd also exited the tent and returned unarmed. It wasn't clear how many of them may have been carrying weapons before they left.
[Updated, 3:05 a.m. March 14: A Pentagon official said Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the Marine commander, ordered the Americans to leave their weapons outside because Afghan soldiers were not allowed to be armed.
"We were going to have Afghans leave their weapons outside," he said. "I wanted the Marines to look just like our Afghan partners."
Gurganus explained that the decision to bar weapons was because of Panetta's presence: "I mean, you got one of the most important people in world there."
Afghan soldiers have often been barred from bringing weapons into meetings with senior U.S. officials in the past. But the prohibition has not previously been applied to U.S. troops.]
[Updated, 10 a.m. March 14: Authorities reported that a vehicle was stolen by an Afghan and ended up on a runway ramp at Camp Bastion in Helmand "at around the same time" Panetta was landing. The man, authorities said, caught fire and he jumped out and ran before he was captured.
A coalition soldier was struck by the car. Panetta's plane was diverted to a different runway.
"At no point was the Secretary or anyone on the aircraft in any danger from this incident," a military statement said.]
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Tuesday in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Scott Olson / AFP/Getty Images