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FACTDROP: Vehicle rams airfield fence during Panetta visit in Afghanistan
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3/14/2012

Vehicle rams airfield fence during Panetta visit in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says despite recent high-profile tragedies, the relationship between U.S. and Afghan officials remains solid. View photos from the aftermath of an incident where an American service member is suspected of killing Afghan civilians in a southern villiage.

Πηγή: Washington Post
By Greg Jaffe and Ernesto Londono
March 14 2012

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — An Afghan rammed through a fence and drove a stolen vehicle onto a runway in an apparent attempt to attack the plane of Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta at a military airfield in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, but Panetta was unharmed and carried on with his visit as planned, U.S. officials said.

The incident occurred as Panetta’s plane was arriving at Camp Bastion, a British base adjoining Camp Leatherneck, a major U.S. Marine base in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Afghan man caught on fire by means that remain unclear, but his vehicle did not explode, and he was apprehended by security forces, officials said. A coalition service member was injured in the incident.

“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.

A U.S. military spokesman, Capt. John 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 wounded during the carjacking, Kirby said.

The Afghan “was driving at a high rate of speed,” he said.

The car crashed into a small ditch near the runway, and the driver got out, Kirby said.

“I’m told he caught fire, the fire was put out, and he is being treated for his wounds,” he said.

Kirby said officials are trying to determine whether the man in custody was trying to attack Panetta and the welcoming delegation meeting his plane.

“We are investigating this,” he said. “We don’t know what the motivations of the driver were.”

Pentagon spokesman George Little said no explosion occurred during the incident. He said he could not confirm that the intrusion was timed to Panetta’s arrival.

“Security personnel responded, and for reasons totally unknown to us at this time, our personnel discovered that he [the Afghan] was ablaze,” Little said. He said the man ran and jumped onto a truck, and base personnel put out the fire. The man was treated for “considerable burn wounds,” Little said.

“We don’t know all the facts, but we have no indication that the secretary was ever at risk,” Little said. He said no explosives were found on the Afghan or in the vehicle. “It is my understanding that the car itself never caught on fire and did not explode,” he said.

“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, he said.

Panetta, making his third trip to Afghanistan, pledged during the visit that a recent string of setbacks would not force the United States to alter its strategy here.

During the visit, the senior Marine Corps commander in southern Afghanistan said there was little that U.S. forces could do to make night raids, which have drawn repeated criticism from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, more palatable to senior Afghan leaders.

The night raids have been a major stumbling block between U.S. and Afghan officials who are trying to negotiate an agreement that sets up a long-term security relationship between the two countries.

“I don’t know how much more accommodating we can be with what is a critical element of a counterinsurgency fight,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the senior Marine commander for troops in Helmand province. All of the night raids are being conducted by joint teams of U.S. and Afghan forces, Gurganus said.

Speaking to U.S. and Afghan troops at Camp Leatherneck, Panetta sought to tamp down worries about the course of the U.S. war effort following the killing on Sunday by a U.S. staff sergeant of as many as 16 Afghans civilians, as well as nationwide riots in the aftermath of an inadvertent burning of Korans last month by U.S. troops.

U.S. officials showed a base surveillance video of the staff sergeant surrendering to Afghan security guards in an effort to prove that he was a lone gunman and to knock down rumors that other U.S. troops might have been involved, a U.S. official said.

“We have been tested time and time again over a decade of war,” Panetta told the U.S. and Afghan troops who gathered in a stuffy tent. “That is the nature of war.... Each of these incidents is deeply troubling, and we have to learn lessons from each of these incidents.”

But he said the incidents do not reflect the “overwhelming majority of ISAF troops and Afghan troops who are doing the job of protecting the country and doing it in outstanding fashion.” He referred to the International Security Assistance Force, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition is called.

In a departure from past practice, about 200 Marines at Camp Leatherneck were told to set their rifles outside before hearing Panetta speak. Gurganus said he made the decision to have the Marines do so out of respect for the two dozen Afghan soldiers who attended the meeting without weapons.

“I wanted the Marines to look just like their Afghan partners,” Gurganus said. “This is not a big deal.”

Panetta’s security team was armed as normal. In a sign of the heightened tensions, even some Marines initially assumed that they were told to leave their weapons outside for security reasons.

“Someone got itchy, and we just adjust,” Sgt. Maj. Brandon Hall, a senior noncommissioned officer at Leatherneck, said of the decision.

Panetta also spoke to a battalion from the Republic of Georgia that suffered five killed since arriving in November. The battalion’s commander lost both of his legs and is recuperating at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Panetta read the troops a letter from their commander, Lt. Col. Alex Tugushi. “Your pain is Georgia’s pain,” Panetta read. The commander lamented that he could not complete his tour and told the troops that they will go down in Georgian history.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials released new statistics showing falling violence levels in an effort to prove that the war effort is not faltering.

Attacks against U.S. and Afghan troops are down 24 percent over the last 12 weeks compared to a similar period a year ago, the figures show. Even in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, attacks have started to drop after holding steady or rising most of last year.

Attacks in the east on U.S. and Afghan troops fell by 36 percent over the same period, according to the latest U.S. military figures. Pentagon officials tout the statistics as proof that the current approach is working, though some of the drop in violence can be attributed to an unusually harsh winter. Snowed has blocked passes that insurgents rely on to move fighters and weapons in from Pakistan.

Despite the drop in violence, the United States faces major hurdles in its effort to end U.S. military operations here by late 2014.


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