A stolen car, suspected to be carrying an incendiary device, burst into flames within 75m of the US Defence Secretary as he was walking across an airport runway at the main British base in Afghanistan last night. The driver, who was set alight, was arrested at gunpoint as Leon Panetta was dragged away by his bodyguards.
The extraordinary and highly embarrassing lapse of security at Camp Bastion, in Helmand, overshadowed David Cameron's press conference with Barack Obama at the White House, with the Prime Minister and the President immediately questioned by the media about the incident.
It is believed the driver was an Afghan working at the vast complex, which contains Bastion and the adjoining US base, Camp Leatherneck. Last night he was receiving medical treatment for severe burns. A British serviceman suffered minor injuries when he attempted to stop the four-wheel drive vehicle from being driven away.
The arrival of Mr Panetta was, in line with other VIP visits to frontline provinces, meant to be secret. Yet the suspect managed to time his drive past a security cordon, though gaps in concrete barriers to moments after the defence secretary had arrived.
Several thousand Afghans as well as a number of other nationalities work at Bastion and Leatherneck. There is also an Afghan camp, Shorabak, although there was no suggestion that the arrested man was a member of the country's security forces.
Mr Panetta's visit had followed the murders of 16 civilians by a US staff sergeant. After the car incident at the airport security, precautions were taken during Mr Panetta's talk to US forces which was described by a number of witnesses present as "bizarre". Marines waiting in a tent to hear the Defence Secretary deliver a morale boosting talk were told to deposit their weapons outside. Sergeant Major Brandon Hall, said: "All I know is that I was told to get the weapons out. Somebody got itchy."