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Deaths of Americans at hands of Somali pirates a troubling escalation in violence, experts say

February 23, 2011 |  7:41 am

Path of American yacht. Click through for larger image. The killing of four Americans in a yacht hijacked by Somali pirates puzzled some experts, who say it's rare for pirates to kill their hostages.

About 50,000 vessels pass through the area each year. Roughly 200 are attacked by pirates, said Roger Hawkes, director of corporate security for Houston-based Global Industries, a marine engineering and construction company. Hawkes notes that piracy in the area is a crude criminal enterprise.

“They are just out to make money,” he said. “The hostages have always been their lifeline and their money line too.”

As a result, Hawkes said, despite the scourge, he could not think of a single incident in which pirates were accused of directly killing a hostage, though several hostages have died over the years when they suffered heart attacks and could not reach a hospital. The vast majority of incidents do not end with a guns-blaring rescue or with harm to those being held, but with a quiet exchange of money for hostages.

“This is a complete game-changer if they actually did arbitrarily execute them,” Hawkes said.

Jean and Scott Adam, of Southern California, and Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle, of Seattle, were killed on the Adams' yacht several days after it was hijacked off the coast of Oman.

Accounts of the killings varied Tuesday and could take some time to sort out.

The Adams were headed toward the Red Sea and then the Greek islands on Friday when, according to U.S. military officials, pirates boarded the Quest off the coast of Oman.

Almost immediately, U.S. naval vessels began shadowing the yacht, negotiating for the Americans' release as the vessels made their way south toward Somalia, said Lt. Col. Mike Lawhorn, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, part of an international coalition of anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

There were signs of dissent among the pirates. On Monday, two of them abandoned the yacht and came aboard the guided-missile destroyer Sterett.

Then, on Tuesday morning, the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett, which missed, according to the U.S. military. As some pirates came on deck with hands raised, as if trying to surrender, a team of 15 Navy SEALs boarded the yacht amid small-arms fire. President Obama had authorized the use of force if the military determined that the hostages' lives were in imminent danger, the White House said.

"The intent always had been that this would be a negotiated process and not ever go into a point where we actually had gunfire," said Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of U.S. naval forces in the region.

When the U.S. forces boarded the yacht, they found two of the pirates already dead; military forces killed two others, one with a gun and one with a knife. All four hostages already had been shot. Some were still alive and given medical treatment, but all died, U.S. officials said. Their bodies were taken aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise and were expected to be taken to the United States.

The pirates offered a different account.

Liban Muse, a member of the pirate group involved in the incident, told The Times in a telephone interview from the Somali coast that the U.S. military fired first.

"We had no intention of killing the hostages until the Americans began shooting at us," Muse said. "Our preference is only to take ships and ransom money, not to kill. But governments are targeting and killing our people."

The case has raised questions about what private yachters can do to improve security.

The high cost of on-board security -- prices often start at $4,000 per day -- is all but prohibitive for most private boaters. Many of them band together in convoys or “rallies.” The Adams had joined a rally but split off three days before their capture. The convoys can make military protection simpler, but with pirates now operating in such a massive expanse of water, it can be hard to guarantee safety, experts said.


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-- Scott Gold