The U.S. military says pirates have shot and killed four Americans aboard a hijacked yacht off the coast of Somalia.
U.S. Vice Admiral Mark Fox told reporters that U.S. naval forces were trying to negotiate the hostages' release Tuesday when, without any warning, pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. warship, the USS Sterett .
Fox said the grenade missed, but sailors then heard gunfire aboard the yacht, the SV Quest.
He said several pirates then appeared on the deck with their hands up and U.S. special forces boarded the hijacked vessel. The special forces discovered all four hostages had been shot by the pirates. Despite medical care, the four Americans died of their wounds.
Fox said the special forces killed two pirates while trying to take control of the ship and detained 15 others. Two other pirates were found dead on board.
Pirates hijacked the yacht on Friday and had been steering it toward the Somali coast, with four U.S. Navy warships and a U.S. aircraft carrier trailing and observing the vessel.
This is believed to be the first time U.S. citizens have been killed by the pirate gangs operating off the Somali coast.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the killings "deplorable" and said they underscore the need for international cooperation in fighting piracy in the region.
Media reports have identified the four Americans killed as yacht owners Scott and Jean Adam of Marina del Rey, California, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle of Seattle, Washington.
The four were sailing along with an international yacht race, the Blue Water Rally, before heading off on their own a week ago. Organizers of the rally say the four were sailing toward Salallah in Oman when the pirates seized their ship.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that President Barack Obama had authorized use of force in case of an imminent threat to the hostages. Carney said the president was informed about the Americans' death at 4:42 am Washington time.
In 2009, U.S. naval forces killed three Somali pirates to free Richard Phillips, the captain of an American-flagged ship that had been hijacked.
The pirates have made hundreds of millions of dollars hijacking ships for ransom in recent years. The European Union's anti-piracy task force says the pirates are currently holding at least 32 vessels and nearly 700 hostages.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.