WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three accused Somali pirates charged with taking two American couples hostage in the waters off Somalia and killing them in February pleaded not guilty on Wednesday in a U.S. federal court in Virginia.
Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar were accused of commandeering the S/V Quest yacht in February and then murdering the four Americans despite attempts by the U.S. military to negotiate their release.
The Somalis entered their not guilty pleas to 26 counts related to the shooting, kidnapping and murdering of the two couples during an arraignment in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, according to court records.
Most of the charges carry the death penalty if convicted.
The four slain Americans were Jean and Scott Adam of California and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle from Seattle.
A group of 14 Somali and Yemeni pirates seized the yacht on February 18, and one was aboard a U.S. warship negotiating a possible deal to release the couples when shooting broke out, prompting the U.S. military to send in special forces.
The shooting on February 22 began after the U.S. military had warned the pirates that they would block their course to land.
One defendant, Abrar, fired a shot over the head of Scott Adam and instructed him to tell the Navy that if the U.S. warship came any closer, the pirates would kill the hostages, according to the indictment.
The other 11 defendants all pleaded guilty to charges related to commandeering the vessel but not the shooting deaths of the Americans.
Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have hijacked scores of vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms from commandeering the ships and seizing hostages.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and James Vicini, editing by Will Dunham)