Phyllis Macay of Seattle, one of the four hostages killed last week by pirates… (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — U.S. negotiators told pirates holding four American hostages off the coast of Somalia that they would not be allowed to go ashore with their captives, U.S. officials said, one of several moves that increased pressure on the pirates before the hostages were killed Tuesday.
The warning that the U.S. intended to prevent the pirates from taking the hostages onto Somali soil was communicated early in the four-day standoff as Navy ships shadowed the 58-foot yacht carrying 19 Somalis and their prisoners, the officials said.
"The thought was, if these guys succeed in getting the hostages to shore, we have almost no leverage anymore," a U.S. Defense official said.
Several officials agreed to discuss the incident on condition of anonymity because the matter is being investigated by the FBI.
Another official called the decision to prevent the hostages from being taken to Somalia "nonnegotiable." More than 700 hostages of various nationalities are being held there by pirates demanding ransoms.
It remains unclear what caused the outbreak of gunfire aboard the yacht that resulted in the deaths of the two American couples, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey and Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle of Seattle. U.S. officials have played down the possibility that their negotiating tactics may have contributed to the deadly outcome.
Experts in hostage negotiations endorsed the decision to block the Americans from being taken off the yacht, saying it is always important in such situations not to let hostages be moved to a new location from where retrieving them may be more difficult.
"One of the goals is always to contain a situation as best you can," said Stephen Romano, a retired FBI hostage negotiator.
But several experts wondered whether the U.S. negotiators went too far in pressuring the pirates, which raised tension in an already-fraught situation. An alternative might have been for the Navy to have not told the pirates that it intended to prevent the hostages from being moved.
"You never want to say 'no' to a hostage-taker," said Dan O'Shea, a former Navy SEAL who was a hostage negotiator at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006. "They are already on edge. It wouldn't take a lot to put somebody over the edge."
Along with the warning that they would be prevented from moving the hostages, the U.S. negotiators, who included an FBI representative, detained two of the Somalis who came aboard the U.S. destroyer Sterett to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. It was decided that the two pirates were "not serious" about negotiating and refused to let them to return to the yacht, U.S. officials said.
The four-day standoff came to a head Tuesday when a team of 15 Navy SEALs boarded the yacht after the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an American warship and gunfire was heard on the yacht. They found the hostages already fatally shot. Four of the pirates were also killed.
The 15 surviving pirates remain aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, off the coast of Oman, awaiting possible prosecution, said Lt. Col. Michael Lawhorn, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
There were no signs that the decision to inform the pirates that they wouldn't be allowed to take the hostages off the yacht angered them, the officials said.
The U.S. negotiators also offered to transport them ashore if they agreed to leave the four Americans aboard the yacht, the officials said.
"The reaction from the pirates was not, 'Oh, we're going to kill your hostages,'" said another U.S. official briefed on the incident.
It's possible the pirates started shooting the hostages after disagreeing among themselves about what to do, the officials said.