US forces storm captured yacht after pirates kill four hostages

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Four American sailors were shot dead by their pirate captors early yesterday even as US military personnel on nearby naval vessels were trying to negotiate for their release, the US Central Command confirmed. At least 15 pirates were also taken into custody aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier.

The bloodshed on the high seas marks the first time that American citizens have lost their lives since piracy became a persistent problem in waters off the Horn of Africa. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, condemned the killings as "deplorable" and called on nations to increase cooperation to confront the problem.

A White House spokesman said that President Barack Obama had been awoken in the middle of the night to be told of the loss of the four Americans who were aboard a private yacht, the SV Quest, when it was first boarded by the pirates last Friday. Mr Obama, he added, had authorised the use of force to rescue them on Saturday.

The Quest had been home to Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey near Los Angeles since 2004, when they started a round-the-world voyage - in part to distribute Bibles at their ports of call. They had been joined by two holiday-making friends, identified as the other victims, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, of Seattle.

According to the version released by the US military, negotiations were under way when pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the pursuing navy ships, the USS Sterett, and gunshots were heard from the yacht. It was at that moment, a Central Command spokesman said, that commandos scrambled to rescue the hostages.

The boarding of the yacht began with hand-to-hand combat between the special forces commandos and the pirates, two of whom were killed. Also found were the remains of two other pirates killed some time earlier. Efforts to save at least one of the hostages failed and they were all declared dead once moved to the Enterprise.

Suggestions made by other Somali pirates in telephone conversations with Reuters and the Associated Press that the four were killed only after the rescue operation had been begun by special forces were strenuously denied by Central Command in Tampa, Florida, last night.

"This is absolutely nonsense. We were in the process of talking with the pirates when we heard small arms fire and a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the USS Sterett, a guided missile destroyer," said Lt-Commander Bill Speaks. "It was only after that our special forces operations team went into action. The hostages were killed prior to any action by US forces."

Even so, some experts in maritime piracy confessed to being perplexed by the sequence of events and by reports that the Quest had been boarded by 19 Somalis, a curiously large number considering the small size of the yacht.

"We have heard threats against the lives of Americans before but it strikes me as being very, very unusual why they would kill hostages outright," commented Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, the head of Dryad Maritime Intelligence. He said that the pirates would surely have known that killing the Americans would provoke an instant US response.

The 15 now in custody are almost certain to be transported to the United States to face trial for murder.