WASHINGTON (NNS) -- Four pirates are dead and 15 are in custody, but not before they killed four Americans in the bloodiest piracy incident in recent history, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command told reporters in a conference call today.
Navy Vice Adm. Mark I. Fox, who also commands the Navy's 5th Fleet, said the pirates shot Scott and Jean Adams of California and Phyllis Mackay and Bob Riggle of Washington state. The surface vessel Quest was sailing around the world when the Somalis hijacked it off the coast of Oman.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One that President Barack Obama authorized the use of force if there was an imminent threat to the hostages. He said the president was informed of their deaths at 4:42 this morning.
"The loss of our fellow Americans is a tragedy," Fox said from his headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.
The admiral gave a timeline of the action. Pirates captured the vessel about 190 nautical miles southeast of Masirah Island, Oman, Feb. 18. Four U.S. Navy warships responded: the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the guided-missile destroyers USS Sterett and USS Bulkeley.
The ships found the vessel and made contact with the pirates via bridge-to-bridge radio, and began a series of negotiations. Yesterday, two pirates boarded the USS Sterett to continue negotiations.
"At 8 a.m. this morning ... a rocket-propelled grenade was fired by the pirates from the Quest toward the Sterett," Fox said. "Immediately thereafter, gunfire erupted from inside the cabin of the Quest. Several pirates appeared on the deck of the Quest and moved up to the bow with their hands in the air in surrender."
U.S. special operations forces closed in on the Quest in small boats and boarded the yacht. "They discovered that all four hostages had been shot by their captors," Fox said. The service members took immediate steps to provide medical care, but the four Americans died of their wounds. The boarding party also found two dead pirates aboard the vessel.
The special operations forces did not fire weapons during the boarding, Fox said.
"While clearing the vessel, two additional pirates were killed," the admiral said. "The remaining 15 suspected pirates are in U.S. custody."
Fox said two additional pirates were killed as the special operators cleared the boat. One was killed with a pistol, the other in a knife fight, the admiral said. There were no casualties to service members or damage to Navy ships. The Navy and the FBI are investigating the incident.
Fox said the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
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