An Afghan interpreter who crashed a stolen pickup truck near the runway of an air base where Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s plane was landing, then emerged from the vehicle in flames, has reportedly died.
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Commander, Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan, said the man died of severe burns despite being under medical care, The New York Times reported.
According to the Los Angeles Times, he had tried to run over a squad of US Marines assembled to meet Panetta as he arrived in the country's south on Wednesday on a pre-planned mission that coincided with the alleged pre-dawn murders of 16 villagers, mostly children and women, by a US soldier.
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Panetta's visit had taken on the "feel of a rescue mission" in the wake of the Kandahar shootings, the LA Times wrote, with the Defense Secretary reassuring Afghan officials and foreign troops of the US commitment to its military mission in Afghanistan.
"I do not believe that there is any reason to make any changes in the strategy," Panetta told reporters with him before arriving at a US air base in Helmand Province.
Panetta, like President Obama, has denounced the deaths and vowed to bring the killer to justice, The New York Times wrote, adding that he delivered the message personally to President Hamid Karzai at a meeting Thursday in the capital.
The incident comes at a tense time for US troops in Afghanistan, and follows a recent incident in which several US soldiers were found to have burned copies of the Quran. That led to violent anti-American protests around the country which left around 30 Afghans dead.
Later, six US service members were shot by Afghan soldiers, further heightening tensions.
The LA Times cited Scaparrotti as saying that the interpreter, who stole the pickup on the base, was carrying a canister containing fuel that he ignited after the car ran into a ditch near the runway.
"My personal opinion is yes, I think he had an intent to harm. I think he tried to hit people," Scaparrotti told reporters traveling with Panetta.
He added that there was no evidence that the attack was aimed at Panetta's plane, although the timing suggested that he may have intended to target the plane's arrival at the air base.
"I personally don’t believe it had anything to do with the secretary’s arrival," he said, according to the Washington Post, adding that: "We don’t know his intent... or what motivated him."
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