ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT The U.S. military said on Friday a top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was in the path of an apparent suicide attack that coincided with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's arrival in Afghanistan this week, a key detail of the incident that had not been initially revealed.
Major General Mark Gurganus and his deputy were part of a VIP delegation assembled to greet Panetta on Wednesday when an Afghan translator driving a stolen sport utility vehicle sped onto the runway ramp, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
At some point, the Afghan man set himself on fire, apparently in a failed attempt to detonate the car, and died from his burns on Thursday.
No one in the delegation was injured and Panetta's plane was safely diverted to another runway ramp at Bastion Airfield, a British base. A British soldier was run over by the Afghan man earlier as he sped through the base and was now in stable condition, a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity.
Gurganus, the U.S. commander in Helmand province, had declined to mention anything about it when speaking to reporters soon after the incident. The Defense Department did not disclose that anything out of the ordinary had happened for about 10 hours on Wednesday.
At the time, the U.S. military was on alert for possible backlash after a U.S. soldier went on a shooting rampage in neighboring Kandahar province on Sunday, killing 16 Afghan civilians.
"We've had zero incidents. We've not so much as even had a two-man protest at this point in time," Gurganus had told reporters at Camp Leatherneck when asked whether anything had occurred in his region.
"So I feel very fortunate about that."
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, told reporters in Kabul on Thursday that the Afghan man had attempted to hit "a group of Marines that were lined up on the ramp," without providing further details.
Although the exact timing of the incident was unclear, a U.S. official acknowledged that Panetta's plane was on the runway during at least the tail end of the incident.
The Pentagon does not believe the translator knew that Panetta was in the arriving C-17 military aircraft, the U.S. defense official said, but it has been unable to rule out the possibility that the Pentagon chief was the ultimate target. An investigation into the incident continues.
Panetta on Thursday played down the incident, one of the most remarkable publicly disclosed events coinciding with his visits to Afghan bases and installations.
"First of all, I have absolutely no reason to believe that any of this was directed at me," said Panetta, a former CIA director who had traveled to Afghanistan in that job as well.
"Having said that, ... this is a war area. We're going to get these kinds of incidents. This is the sixth time that I've come to Afghanistan, and almost each time involves an incident ... I once came here and rockets were landing on a field that I was involved in."
Panetta did not say when those other incidents occurred.
The translator's father and brother, who also worked on the base as translators, were in custody, as was a third Afghan, the defense official said.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)