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Crash on Afghanistan base probed as possible attack on Panetta

March 14, 2012 | 11:35 am

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

REPORTING FROM HELMAND PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN -- An Afghan male in a stolen vehicle drove onto a runway ramp at a U.S. airbase in southern Afghanistan and ran from the scene in flames Wednesday about the same time Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was landing at the base, officials said.

The incident was under investigation as a possible attempted attack aimed at Panetta, but Pentagon spokesman George Little said Panetta was never in danger.

No explosives were found in the vehicle, which ended up in a ditch, or on the Afghan driver, who was badly burned, Little said.

Panetta landed about 11 a.m. but officials did not disclose the incident for another 10 hours after Panetta had left the airbase in Helmand Province and flown to Kabul. 

The driver, who a Pentagon spokesman said was an Afghan civilian who worked on the base, was apprehended by base personnel. He had carjacked a small pickup truck from a coalition service member, who was wounded in the theft, spokesman Capt. John Kirby said.

"There's no evidence right now that the driver had any idea who was on that aircraft," Kirby said. "We don't know what the motives were."

Little said that "anytime there's an incident like this we take it seriously.

"[But] it did not impact the secretary's visit and his security was not threatened," Little said.

Panetta and his aides learned of the incident on the runway ramp after exiting the C-17 on which he had flown to the air base, Camp Bastion, from Kyrgyzstan. His plane was diverted to another area of the airport away from where the vehicle stopped.

"I don't know if the car came on while we were landing or before or slightly after," Little added.

Two attacks were reported Wednesday while Panetta was visiting: A roadside bomb struck a minivan in southern Afghanistan, killing eight civilians. Another deadly attack occurred in Kandahar province, where a bomb planted on a motorbike killed an Afghan intelligence officer.


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Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, center, listens to his Afghan counterpart Bismillah Mohammadi, unseen, during a meeting at the Interior Ministry in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. Credit: Musadeq Sadeg / Associated Press