- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NAIROBI, Kenya | Somali pirates fatally shot four American hostages Tuesday, the U.S. military said, marking the first deaths of American citizens 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 they died of their wounds, the 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 of the yacht, said Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of U.S. naval forces for Central Command.

Vice 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 but missed the guided-missile destroyer 600 yards away. Almost immediately afterward, small arms fire was heard coming from the yacht, he added.

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, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

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

Negotiations had been 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. Vice Adm. Fox said he had no details on the negotiations.

He identified the slain Americans as Jean and Scott Adams of Marina del Rey near Los Angeles, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle.

The Quest was the home of Mr. and Mrs. 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. Vice Adm. Fox said mariners are warned about traveling through the area because of the dangers of pirate attacks.

Two days before the attack, a New York court had sentenced a pirate to 33 years in prison for the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo vessel.

That hijacking ended when Navy sharpshooters killed two pirates holding the ship’s captain. A pirate in Somalia told the AP last week that pirates were more likely to attack Americans because of the verdict.

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