By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three accused Somali pirates were charged in a U.S. court on Friday with the murder, kidnapping and hostage-taking of two American couples in February and could face the death penalty if convicted.
A federal grand jury in Norfolk, Virginia, handed up the indictment against Ahmed Muse Salad, Abukar Osman Beyle and Shani Nurani Shiekh Abrar over the pirating of a yacht off the coast of Somalia in February and the murder of the four Americans on board.
The three Somalis were among 14 men brought to the United States and charged in March with piracy, conspiracy and other offenses. The other 11 defendants all pleaded guilty.
The new, more serious charges against the three defendants were contained in a superseding indictment. Twenty-two of the 26 counts carry a possible death sentence.
The four slain Americans were Jean and Scott Adam of California and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle from Seattle.
"Today's superseding indictment charges three men from Somalia with brutally murdering four American citizens held hostage for ransom," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement.
According to the indictment, the three defendants and others, armed with firearms and a rocket-propelled grenade, boarded the yacht, the S/V Quest, on February 18.
As they sailed toward Somalia, the three defendants and their co-conspirators took turns standing armed guard over the hostages, according to the 33-page indictment.
Beginning February 20, the U.S. Navy and the FBI began negotiating with the pirates to try to secure the release of the hostages.
One defendant, Abrar, fired a shot over the head of Scott Adam and instructed Adam to tell the Navy that if the U.S. warship came any closer, the pirates would kill the hostages, according to the indictment.
The three defendants and other co-conspirators were accused of intentionally shooting and killing the hostages on February 22, without provocation, before the four Americans could be rescued by the U.S. military.
An arraignment for the three has been set for July 20.
Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have hijacked vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, making tens of millions of dollars in ransoms by seizing ships, including oil tankers, and hostages.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)