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 heightened pressure on the pirates before the hostages were killed Tuesday.
The warning that the U.S. intended to block 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 the 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,” said a U.S. defense official.
Several officials agreed to discuss the incident in return for anonymity because the matter is still being investigated by the FBI.
Another official called the decision not to allow the hostages to be taken to Somalia as “nonnegotiable.” More than 700 hostages of various nationalities are currently being held on shore by pirates demanding ransom.
It remains a mystery what caused the outbreak of gunfire aboard the yacht that resulted in the shooting deaths of the two couples, Jean and Scott Adam of Marina del Rey, Calif., 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 American from being taken off the yacht, saying it is always important in such situations not to let hostages be moved to a new location where recovering them would 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 questioned whether the U.S. negotiators went too far in boxing in the pirates, which raised tension in an already fraught situation. An alternative might have been for the Navy not to tell the pirates that it intended to prevent the hostages from being removed.
“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 blocked from moving the hostages, the U.S. negotiators, including a representative from the FBI, detained two of the Somalis who came aboard the USS Sterett to discuss a resolution of the crisis. The U.S. decided that the two pirates were “not serious” about negotiating and refused to permit them to return to the yacht, U.S. officials said.
The four-day standoff came to a head Tuesday morning when a team of 15 Navy SEALs boarded the yacht after the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an American warship and gunfire broke out aboard the yacht. They found four hostages already fatally shot. Four of the 19 pirates were also killed.
The 15 survivors remain aboard the USS Enterprise, off the coast of Oman, awaiting possible prosecution, said Lt. Col. Mike 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 the pirates, 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.
Likewise, the officials said, when the pirates aboard the yacht were informed that the Navy was detaining their two cohorts, there was no apparent anger at the move, the U.S. officials said.
It’s possible the pirates started shooting the hostages after disagreeing among themselves about whether to give up, the officials said.