Vehicle rams airstrip during Panetta visit in Afghanistan

Panetta visit in AfghanistanKABUL: An Afghan man rammed a stolen pickup truck onto a military airfield in southern Afghanistan and ran from the vehicle in flames just as a plane carrying Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta landed Wednesday, U.S. officials said.

Nobody on the plane was harmed, and Panetta went ahead with a visit marked by unprecedented tension between U.S. and Afghan authorities.Pentagon officials said they could not immediately confirm that the bizarre incident was an attempt to attack Panetta or even that it was linked to his visit. Although many details remained unexplained, it appeared to be the most serious security breach in a visit to Afghanistan by a high-level U.S. official during the decade-long war.

Hours after the incident, officials traveling with Panetta disclosed that an Army staff sergeant who allegedly massacred 16 Afghan villagers in Kandahar province early Sunday has been moved out of Afghanistan.

The late-night disclosure appeared likely to exacerbate tensions with Afghans who had demanded that the shooter be tried in an Afghan court.In Washington, President Obama insisted that “our forces are making very real progress” in Afghanistan, and he reaffirmed a transition plan under which U.S. and NATO troops would withdraw by the end of 2014.

According to Pentagon officials, an Afghan civilian stole a pickup truck from a NATO service member, rammed through a fence and drove at high speed onto the airfield at Camp Bastion, a British installation adjoining the U.S. Marines’ Camp Leatherneck base in the southern province of Helmand. The driver, a contract interpreter on the base, crashed into a ditch near the ramp where Panetta’s plane was going to park, and then fled the vehicle in flames and jumped onto a truck before being apprehended by security guards.

Base personnel put out the fire, but the man later died of burns, said Lt. Gen. Curtis Scapparrotti, the number two American commander in Afghanistan.Pentagon spokesman George Little said no explosives were found on the man or in the vehicle. “It is my understanding that the car itself never caught on fire and did not explode,” he said.He said the NATO soldier was seriously injured when he was struck by the vehicle during the carjacking.

“We don’t know all the facts, but we have no indication that the secretary was ever at risk,” Little said.“There is no evidence right now that the driver had any idea who was on that aircraft,” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, another Pentagon spokesman. “We do not have an indication it was intended as an attack.”The incident occurred about the time of Panetta’s 11 a.m. arrival at Camp Bastion but was not disclosed by Pentagon officials until about 10 hours later, after some details of it had leaked to the British news media.

It came three days after the pre-dawn shooting rampage by a U.S. soldier — a massacre that has provoked widespread outrage across Afghanistan.Kirby said the soldier was moved to a pretrial detention center “based on a legal recommendation,” but he declined to say where. The unidentified staff sergeant has not been charged, but U.S. officials said he surrendered after the killings and admitted his involvement. A senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he was flown to Kuwait. – WP