Afghan dies as security breach overshadows Panetta talks
KABUL - Agence France-Presse
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is greeted at Forward Operating Base Shukvani, Afghanistan, Wednesday, March 14, 2012. AP PhotoAn Afghan died Thursday after trying to ram a truck at US Marines waiting to greet the Pentagon chief in an unprecedented security breach overshadowing what was billed as a fence-mending visit.
The still puzzling incident, which American officials took 10 hours to confirm, took place as Leon Panetta flew into the high security Camp Bastion base in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday ahead of talks with Afghan leaders.
Military officials have dripped out only sketchy details of the attempted attack, claiming first that there was no link to Panetta's arrival and then confirming that the target was indeed his US Marine welcoming committee.
The incident is likely only to heighten growing concerns about a surge in attacks on Western troops carried out by Afghans being trained to take over security in the war-torn country when US and NATO allies pull out in 2014.
According to US officials, an Afghan interpreter hijacked a pick-up truck from a soldier and drove it at a group of US Marines on the airfield tarmac, before it crashed and burst into flames.
The Marines he tried to run over "were assembled to meet the secretary of defence's plane", a military official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
General Mike Scaparotti said earlier that he believed the Afghan "had the intent to harm" but sought to downplay any threat to Panetta.
"I personally don't believe it had anything to do with the secretary's arrival," he said.
There is "no way you can identify one aircraft from the other".
The Afghan, who was engulfed in flames after crashing the vehicle, had a container of fuel in the car and Scaparotti said he died early Thursday.
The US general said there were no explosives in the vehicle and that "the person had no explosive vest on him".
A British soldier was injured "in the course of the theft" of the vehicle, the military official said, without giving details.
Panetta's visit had been billed as an opportunity to smooth over relations with Afghan leaders, which took a severe knock when a US soldier allegedly massacred 16 villagers on Sunday and copies of the Koran were burnt last month.
Most of those killed were women and children in two villages in southern Kandahar province, a key Taliban stronghold, in the worst single such incident since the 2001 US-led invasion.
The suspect, a US Army sergeant who served three tours in Iraq, has been flown to Kuwait, in a first step towards being charged and put on trial outside Afghanistan, defying demands by Afghan leaders for a public trial at home.
Scaparotti, deputy commander of US forces, said the transfer was carried out to ensure the suspect received fair legal treatment and expected that the alleged gunman would soon be formally charged.
"In serious incidents, we move individuals to a location that we can provide both proper pre-trial confinement (and) access to legal services," he said.
On Thursday, about 1,000 Afghans took to the streets in the town of Qalat in Zabul province, which neighbours Kandahar, to denounce the shooting.
Police said the crowd shouted anti-American slogans and demanded a public trial for the shooter, before the protesters dispersed peacefully.
It was only the second protest is Afghanistan over the murders in Kandahar's Panjwayi district that American officials had expected could ignite more serious unrest in Afghanistan.
Analysts have warned, however, that the shootings could complicate already difficult talks with Kabul on a possible US troop presence after 2014, as the government has so far refused to grant legal immunity to American troops -- the same issue that scuppered a US strategic pact with Iraq.
Panetta was due to meet President Hamid Karzai on Thursday, having insisted that "troubling" events should not force a change in NATO's war strategy and insisting that progress was being made in the 10-year war against the Taliban.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said there were no plans for "sudden" changes to a scheduled timetable for troop withdrawal and said the United States would stick to plans for Afghan forces to take over security in 2014.
"I don't anticipate at this stage that we're going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have," Obama told a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron.