CNN and the LA Times report on the strange and inexplicable story of the murder of four Americans at the hands of Somali pirates. Normally, the pirates go after commercial vessels, thanks to their expensive cargoes and the deep pockets of the ship owners and customers. In this case, the pirates captured an excursion vessel, apparently to hold it and the four Americans for ransom. US forces had been in negotiation with the pirates when the Somalis launched a rocket at the American ship, and gunfire erupted in the cabin:

There were signs of divisions among the 19 pirates during the hostage standoff, U.S. officers said. On Monday, two of them came aboard one of the Navy vessels, the USS Sterret, for face-to-face negotiations and did not return to the yacht.

The incident turned fatal Tuesday morning when the pirates fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Sterret, which missed, and U.S. naval personnel heard gunshots coming from the yacht. At that point, a team of 15 special-operations forces boarded the yacht.

“As they responded to the gunfire, reaching and boarding the Quest, the forces discovered all four hostages had been shot by their captors,” according to a U.S. military account of the incident.

By the description, it appeared that some of the pirates had wanted to continue negotiations but lost control of the others:

After the grenade was fired at the Sterret, several pirates came on deck with their hands raised, as if trying to surrender, Fox said. The gunfire erupted on board almost immediately. But U.S. officers said it was not known whether the hostages had made an escape attempt or whether disagreements among the pirates prompted the shots.

The US has 15 pirates in custody, and will be held for prosecution.  That would mean 4 murder charges for all 15, as the conspiracy and piracy makes everyone equally responsible for the crimes.  That won’t be much of a comfort to the families and friends of Jean and Scott Adam and Phyllis and Robert Riggle.  Our prayers will go out for them.

Meanwhile, the US and the rest of the world needs to deal decisively with the pirates in the Gulf of Aden.  Perhaps the pirates we have in custody will give up information on the whereabouts of the ringleaders and their financial support, but we’d better start getting more serious about securing that crucial trade route.