Thirteen Somalis and one Yemeni have been brought to the United States to face charges in the seizure of a yacht with two American couples aboard who were later killed off the coast of Somalia, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The accused pirates were charged with piracy, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and use of firearms during a crime involving last month’s hostage-taking in which four Americans were kidnapped for ransom, according to court documents.
The defendants were not charged with murder, but a U.S. Justice Department official said more charges could be brought later.
The group seized the yacht and were negotiating with the U.S. military to release the couples when a pirate fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett.
Gunfire then broke out inside the pirated vessel, prompting the U.S. military to send American special forces to board the vessel. The U.S. military has said the pirates shot the hostages before American troops boarded the yacht.
U.S. troops killed two pirates as they boarded the boat. Another two were found dead when special forces arrived but they were not killed by U.S. forces, the military has said.
The American victims were Jean and Scott Adam of California and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle from Seattle.
According to the indictment filed in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, at least three defendants intentionally shot and killed the Americans without provocation before they could be rescued by the U.S. military.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, U.S. officials said.
According to the indictment, the defendants conspired to unlawfully seize, kidnap, abduct and hold for ransom the four Americans on the yacht. They were armed with assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade when they boarded the yacht.
One defendant, Mohamud Salad Ali, went to the Sterett to negotiate on February 21, according to the indictment. The next day, a pirate fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterett.
The case marked at least the third time that suspected pirates operating off Somalia have been brought to the United States to face criminal charges.
In February, a Somali pirate was sentenced in federal court in New York to 33 years and nine months in prison for his role in the 2009 seizure of the Maersk Alabama container ship.
In April last year, 11 defendants were brought to Norfolk to face charge for the attacks on two U.S. Navy ships off the coast of Africa.
Pirate gangs operating off the coast of Somalia have stepped up hijacking attacks on vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing ships, including oil tankers, despite the presence of dozens of foreign naval vessels.