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Somalis get life in prison over pirating U.S. vessel

(Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Monday sentenced two Somali pirates to spend the rest of their lives in a federal prison for their roles in the hijacking of two American couples who later were killed, prosecutors said.

Muhidin Salad Omar, 30, was part of a Somali and Yemeni group that hijacked the S/V Quest off the Somali coast in February and he went aboard the U.S. guided-missile warship USS Sterett to negotiate a possible ransom.

While he was aboard the American vessel, shooting broke out on the private yacht and the four Americans were killed. The rest of the pirates were captured by U.S. military forces and brought to Norfolk, Virginia for prosecution.

Three Somalis have been charged for allegedly shooting, kidnapping and murdering the two couples: Scott Underwood Adam, Jean Savage Adam, Phyllis Patricia Macay and Robert Campbell Riggle.

Another Somali, Mahdi Jama Mohamed, was also sentenced on Monday to life in prison. Mohamed, believed to be 23 or 24 years old, admitted to guarding the hostages but was not involved in the shootings of the Americans either.

He also helped U.S. Navy investigators who are trying to model a new profile of pirate activity and tendencies, according to a court filing. He and Omar pleaded guilty to piracy in May.

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.

Judge Michael Davis ordered life sentence terms for Omar and Mohamed, a mandatory sentence for piracy.

"Somali piracy is a scourge on the world stage, and it continues to grow more widespread and more violent," Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement.

Two more from the group are due to be sentenced on Tuesday.

The case is USA v. Salad et al, No. 11-cr-34 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington, Editing by Sandra Maler)

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