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WASHINGTON — The United States strongly condemned the killing of four U.S. citizens by Somali pirates off East Africa on Tuesday and urged the world to work to bring maritime criminals to justice.

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Meanwhile, the remains of the four were taken aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, as were 15 suspected pirates now facing charges in the deaths.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the killings were “deplorable” and that they underscored the need for international cooperation on fighting the scourge of piracy in waters off the Horn of Africa.

It was the first time U.S. citizens have been killed in a wave of pirate attacks that have plagued the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in recent years.

Clinton expressed her sympathies for the families of the victims killed aboard the pirated yacht Quest – Jean and Scott Adam, of Marina del Rey near Los Angeles, and Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle, of Seattle, Washington.

The Adamses lived aboard the Quest and had been sailing around the world since December 2004 distributing Bibles. The yacht was hijacked Friday several hundred miles south of Oman.

President Barack Obama was awakened to news of the deaths at 4:42 a.m. Washington time Tuesday. He had authorized the military on Saturday to use force in case of an imminent threat to the hostages, said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Marine Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement from Tampa, Fla.: “We express our deepest condolences for the innocent lives callously lost aboard the Quest.”

Clinton urged international partners to provide material, financial and logistical support to an African peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the country the pirates use as the launching point of their attacks. Reports indicated that the pirates had launched from the coastal town of Harardhere, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

U.S. naval forces were trailing the Americans’ captured yacht with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and four warships and negotiations were under way when pirates fired toward the ship with a rocket-propelled grenade, the military said. Then gunfire was heard aboard the yacht; and when special operations forces arrived on the vessel they found the Americans had been shot, the Central Command statement said.

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