"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."
An Afghan died Thursday after trying to ram a truck into 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.
Panetta sought to downplay the incident, following talks with President Hamid Karzai billed as a chance to calm anger over a US soldier allegedly killing 16 villagers on Sunday and copies of the Koran being burnt last month.
"I have absolutely no reason to believe that this was directed at me," he told a press conference, but added: "This is a war area" and "we're going to get these kind of incidents".
Separate bomb attacks killed at least 15 Afghans in the south during his two-day visit -- eight civilians in Helmand and a policeman in Kandahar on Wednesday and six civilians in a roadside bomb in Uruzgan on Thursday.
Military officials have dripped out confused details of the attempted airport 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 to heighten 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 Scaparrotti said earlier that he believed the Afghan "had the intent to harm" but sought to downplay any threat to Panetta.
There is "no way you can identify one aircraft from the other," he said.
The Afghan, who was engulfed in flames after crashing the vehicle, had a container of fuel in the car and Scaparrotti said he died early Thursday, but that there had been no explosives in the vehicle or strapped to the man.
A British soldier was injured "in the course of the theft" of the vehicle, the military official said, without giving details.In a later twist, a senior defence official said a military dog helped in the "pursuit" and "restraint" of the Afghan and suffered minor burns....