- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Four Americans taken hostage by Somali pirates off East Africa were shot and killed by their captors Tuesday, the U.S. military said, marking the first time U.S. citizens have been killed in a wave of pirate attacks plaguing the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for years.

U.S. naval forces who were trailing the Americans’ captured yacht with four warships quickly boarded the vessel after hearing the gunfire. They tried to provide lifesaving care to the Americans, but the four died of their wounds, U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said in a statement.

A member of a U.S. special operations force killed one of the pirates with a knife as he went inside the yacht, said Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of U.S. naval forces for the Central Command.

Adm. Fox said in a televised briefing that the violence on Tuesday started when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired from the yacht at the USS Sterett, a guided-missile destroyer that was 600 yards away. The RPG missed, and almost immediately afterward small-arms fire was heard coming from the yacht, Adm. Fox said.

President Obama, who was notified about the deaths at 4:42 a.m. Washington time, had authorized the military on Saturday to use force in case of an imminent threat to the hostages, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Two pirates, including the one who was knifed, died during the ensuing confrontation — which happened around 9 a.m. East Africa time — and 13 were captured and detained, the Central Command said. The remains of two other pirates who already were dead for some time also were found. The U.S. military didn’t state how those two died. It was unclear if the pirates had fought among themselves.

Negotiations were under way to try to win the release of the two couples on the pirated vessel Quest when the gunfire was heard, the U.S. military said. Adm. Fox, asked by reporters about the nature of the negotiations, said he had no details.

He identified the slain Americans as Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., near Los Angeles, and Phyllis Macay (spelled “Mackay” in some reports) and Bob Riggle of Seattle.

The Quest was the home of the Adams, who had been sailing around the world since December 2004 with a yacht full of Bibles.

Pirates hijacked the Quest on Friday several hundred miles south of Oman. Adm. Fox said mariners are warned about traveling through the area because of the dangers of pirate attacks.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said, “We express our deepest condolences for the innocent lives callously lost aboard the Quest.”

In total, the United States said, 19 pirates were involved in the hijacking of the Quest.

At the Seattle Singles Yacht Club, where Mr. Riggle and Ms. Macay were well known, Joe Grande said the two were “great sailors, good people. They were doing what they wanted to do, but that’s small comfort in the face of this.”

Only minutes before the military announced that the four Americans had died, a Somali pirate told the Associated Press by phone that if the yacht was attacked, “the hostages will be the first to go.”

“Some pirates have even suggested rigging the yacht with land mines and explosives so as the whole yacht explodes with the first gunshot,” said the pirate, who gave his name as Abdullahi Mohamed. He claimed to be a friend of the pirates holding the four Americans.

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