By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Somali pirates killed two American couples taken hostage aboard their yacht in February after the U.S. military warned them it would block their course to land, according to court papers released on Monday.
Despite negotiations to release the two couples, one of the pirates captured after the shooting, Burhan Yusuf, told investigators that the shooting came after the USS Sterett radioed a warning that it would stop the pirates' movement in the waters off the Somali coast.
"Some of the pirates were saying that they were going to massacre the hostages in order to get the U.S. boats to retreat," according to a statement of facts by Yusuf filed as part of his plea agreement in U.S. court in Virginia.
Yusuf, 31, pleaded guilty on Monday in a federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, for his role in pirating the S/V Quest in February. The Americans killed were Jean and Scott Adam of California and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle from Seattle.
He denied any role in the shooting and said he saw five other pirates who pointed their guns at the two couples.
Yusuf said he witnessed three of the pirates shooting at the hostages: Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar. None of the men have been charged with murder, but prosecutors could always add charges later.
So far, five of the 15 men in U.S. custody and accused in the piracy of the yacht have pleaded guilty. They face mandatory sentences of life in prison.
The group of pirates seized the yacht on February 18, and one was aboard the U.S. guided-missile warship negotiating a possible deal to release the couples when the shooting broke out.
One of the pirates, now dead, gave the order to fire a bazooka at the USS Sterett as a warning shot but not to hit it, according to court papers filed last week.
Gunfire then broke out inside the pirated vessel, prompting the U.S. military to send American special forces to the boat.
The pirate who fired the bazooka, Ali Abdi Mohamed, raced to where the hostages were being held, and found them and some of the pirates dead, according to court papers in his plea agreement filed last week.
The Pentagon said in February after the incident that they had no warning when the firing began. The pirates were captured after the shooting and brought to U.S. soil for prosecution.
Pirate gangs have been operating off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing ships, including oil tankers, and hostages despite the presence of foreign navies.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)