CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - An Afghan civilian stole a military pickup truck, rammed through a fence, and crashed into a ditch by a runway around the time that a plane carrying Defense Secretary Leon Panetta landed at an airfield in southern Afghanistan Wednesday, US officials said.
Panetta was unharmed and carried on with his visit as planned.
Pentagon officials said they could not immediately confirm that the crash was an attempt to attack Panetta or that it was linked to his visit. They said the driver’s motives are under investigation.
“There is no evidence right now that the driver had any idea who was on that aircraft,’’ said Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
“We do not have an indication it was intended as an attack.’’
The crash occurred around the time of Panetta’s 11 a.m. arrival at Camp Bastion, a British base adjoining Camp Leatherneck, a major US Marine base in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
The Afghan man emerged from his truck in flames, but the vehicle did not explode, and the man was apprehended by security forces, officials said.
A coalition service member was injured in the incident, which was not disclosed by Pentagon officials for 10 hours after some details of it had leaked to the British press.
“At no point was the secretary or anyone on the aircraft in any danger from this incident,’’ the NATO command in Kabul said in a statement.
Kirby said the suspect in custody is an Afghan who stole a small pickup truck from a NATO soldier on the base shortly before driving it onto the runway.
The soldier was injured after being struck by the stolen vehicle during the carjacking.
Officials said that the suspect was not a member of the Afghan armed forces but apparently worked at the base as a civilian.
“We don’t know all the facts, but we have no indication that the secretary was ever at risk,’’ Pentagon spokesman George Little said. He said no explosives were found on the Afghan or in the vehicle.
“We don’t know for sure if the stolen vehicle incident was in any way connected to the secretary’s arrival or visit,’’ and it did not affect the visit at all, Little said.
The secretary’s plane was diverted to a different runway shortly after the crash.
“We learned of this incident on the ramp,’’ Little said. He said that the crash is still under investigation, and that he did not know exactly when the vehicle crashed.
“I don’t know if the car came on while we were landing or before or slightly after,’’ Little said.
The incident occurred three days after a US soldier slipped away from his small base in Kandahar Province and killed as many as 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn shooting rampage - a massacre that has provoked widespread outrage across Afghanistan.
Afghan lawmakers and other officials have demanded that the soldier be put on trial in an Afghan court.
But a senior defense official disclosed Wednesday that the shooting suspect, an Army staff sergeant, has been moved out of Afghanistan.
He still faces charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But the move indicates that he will not be tried in Afghanistan.
The airfield runway incident was one of the most serious security breaches during an unannounced visit by a US Cabinet member to a war zone in recent years.
During past visits to Iraq or Afghanistan, American diplomats and military officials have gone to great lengths to keep such trips secret until the senior officials landed, out of fear that insurgents would have time to plan sophisticated attacks.