The top U.S. commander in Helmand Province and his British deputy were with the U.S. Marines that an Afghan man tried to run down as they waited for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arrive in southern Afghanistan, defense officials acknowledged Friday, proving the incident to be more serious than had been disclosed earlier.
A senior defense official also said that three Afghans, including the father and brother of the alleged attacker, were detained by the military. It was not clear if they were still in custody. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the other Marines and the British official were at Bastion Air Field waiting to greet Panetta, when an Afghan contractor hijacked a white Toyota SUV and tried to run down the Marines. The Afghan, who worked as an interpreter, had a lighter and a container of fuel in the vehicle which ignited. He was badly burned and later died.
Panetta's C-17 military transport plane was taxiing toward the landing ramp when officials at the airport saw the smoke and the burning man, and directed the secretary's plane to a different landing area, the senior defense official said.
The emerging details fuel speculation that the attacker may have been targeting Panetta or at least may have been aware that a VIP was about to land. It was not clear if the driver was intending to take his own life in a suicide attack.
What is clear, however, is that if the attacker had waited just a few more minutes, Panetta's plane would have been at the ramp where the Marines were waiting and the car crashed.
U.S. defense officials have said repeatedly that Panetta was never in any danger, and that, at this point, they believe the attacker did not know who was on the plane.
The senior defense official said that the father and brother of the attacker are also interpreters, and that the third person taken into custody may also be one.
Gurganus and the other Marines in the welcoming party had to take evasive action to avoid the SUV racing at them, and security personnel doused the fire. The SUV was a military vehicle that had been reported stolen about a half hour before, the senior defense official said. A British soldier was injured when he was run over by the attacker shortly before the crash. Officials said he was in stable condition.
Very shortly after Gurganus dodged the car, the commander spoke to reporters at Camp Leatherneck, which is adjacent to Bastion, a British air field. And despite repeated questions about security in the area, did not reveal the incident. Instead, he told reporters that there had been no violence in his area in the wake of the shooting spree by a U.S. soldier that killed 16 Afghans last weekend.
"We've had zero incidents," Gurganus said. "We've not so much as even had a two man protest at this point in time." He later added that, "You can't get a whole lot safer than right here when you're surrounded by everybody else on the base."
Gurganus' involvement in the incident also raises new questions about the highly unusual order he gave for all the Marines at a town hall meeting just a short time later with Panetta to get up and take their weapons outside and leave them there while the secretary was speaking. The officer who announced the order just before Panetta came in to speak, told reporters that "something had come to light" and that he was told to get the weapons out of the building.
Asked about the order later, Gurganus said it was only because Afghan soldiers in the town hall session weren't allowed to have their guns, so he wanted his Marines to be on similar footing.
Details on the attack against the Marines have been slow to come out, and officials did not publicly acknowledge it until nearly 10 hours after it happened.
Defense officials traveling with Panetta said the secretary was aware very quickly that there was a security breach and that the plane had to be rerouted. But they said he did not get more details on the attack until several hours later.