A stolen car, suspected to be carrying an incendiary device, burst into flames within 75 metres of the US Defence Secretary last night as he was walking across the runway at the main British base in Afghanistan. The driver, who was set alight, was arrested at gunpoint while Leon Panetta was bundled 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 in the Rose Garden of the White House. The Prime Minister and the President were immediately questioned by the media about the incident. Both men said they had no further details.
The International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Kabul said: "We are aware of a stolen vehicle incident today at Camp Bastion, which injured one coalition service member. The alleged perpetrator was apprehended by base security personnel. We are currently investigating to determine more facts."
It is believed the driver was an Afghan working at the vast complex, which contains Bastion and the adjoining American 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 seized, just before it was driven on to the runway.
The arrival of Mr Panetta was, in line with all VIP visits to frontline provinces, meant to be a secret. Yet, the attack was launched moments after the Defence Secretary had landed. The vehicle sped through a security cordon, dodging gaps in concrete barriers, before crashing into a ditch, where it burst into flames.
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 immediate suggestion that the arrested man was a member of the Afghan security forces.
Following the incident, the base went into lockdown, with security precautions described by a number of US Marines as "bizarre". US forces waiting in a tent to hear Mr Panetta deliver a morale-boosting talk were suddenly told to deposit all their weapons, including sidearms, outside. Sgt-Major Brandon Hall, said: "All I know is that I was told to get the weapons out. Somebody got itchy, that's all I've got to say."
Mr Panetta's visit follows the murders of 16 civilians, mostly women and children, in Kandahar by a US staff sergeant, which led to an outpouring of fierce anger and dismay among the Afghan population.
Earlier, 30 people, including six American service personnel, were killed after US officials burned copies of the Koran. Last week six British soldiers died in a roadside bombing.
To show that the weekend massacre was the work of only one person, the US military has released footage of the 38-year-old staff sergeant, who has not been named, returning to the base and surrendering his weapon. He has been flown out of the country.