Burkina Faso mine workers sought extra protection before ambush

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Five months before an ambush killed 39 colleagues, local workers at a Canadian-owned gold mine in Burkina Faso pleaded with managers to fly them to the site rather than go by a road prone to attacks, two people said.

The employees wanted the same protection as expatriate staff who fly to the mine in helicopters since three workers were killed in two attacks in August 2018.

Shortly after mine owner, Quebec-based Semafo, added a military escort to bus convoys to the site each week.

Local employees of Semafo and its Accra-based contractor African Mining Services (AMS) believed it was not enough in an area notorious for bandits and jihadists.

On November 6, attackers blew up an armoured vehicle escorting the convoy and opened fire on the buses, killing 39 people and wounding 60. It was the worst attack the in West African country in years.

Local employees at AMS expressed their fears at a June meeting attended by miners representing the local workforce, an AMS manager and two AMS human resources representatives, according to two workers who attended.

“I said ‘do you want them to kill us before you take action?’” Samuel Kabre, who was at the meeting, asked. “AMS management) said locals weren’t the target, but we were the target.”

AMS and its parent company, Australia-based Perenti Global Ltd., did not comment on the meeting or whether employee concerns were relayed to Semafo. Semafo did not have a representative at the meeting, sources said.

In a statement responding to questions from Reuters, Perenti said according to its intelligence, military and government personnel were considered the likely target of armed raids, not local workers.

It said security matched the level of threat identified by intelligence sources and international security firms.

“The scale and focus of the attack was unprecedented and not seen before in this region.”

Semafo representatives did not respond to calls and questions delivered to the company’s offices in Ouagadougou and its Montreal headquarters.

A representative with law firm McMillan LLP, listed in past security filings as counsel for Semafo, referred questions to the company.

BODY ARMOUR LEFT UNUSED

AMS hired mining consultant Patrick Hickey in March to draw up a proposal to fly staff to and from the mine once a runway was built, he told Reuters.

On June 13, he sent his proposal to officials at Perenti, then called Ausdrill, according to an email seen by Reuters.

John Kavanagh, AMS’ former chief operating officer of African operations, presented the plan to Semafo soon afterwards, according to Hickey, who said he was not privy to Semafo’s response.

“Things were changing and more and more we were going to have to fly employees out in Burkina. Not everyone had come to terms with that yet,” Hickey said.

Kavanagh did not respond to calls and an email seeking comment. Perenti and AMS declined to comment on Hickey’s plan, if it was shared with Semafo or what the Canadian company’s response was.

At the time of the June meeting, Perenti sent bullet-proof vests for Burkinabe workers to wear to and from the mine, Kabre and his former colleague said. Perenti confirmed body armour was offered to staff.

Workers refused to wear it, fearing the expensive kit would attract armed assailants seeking to steal it. The unused vests are piled up in an office at the mine, they said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack and Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kabore referred to the assailants as unidentified “terrorist groups”.

Groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda operate in the country and carried out similar attacks over the past year, security officials in the region said.

CONTRASTING PLANS

After the ambush, Semafo suspended operations at the mine in Burkina Faso’s Est region and said it would not resume work until security in the area was assured.

The company this year started building an airstrip to increase transport capacity at the site. Initial plans included flying only expatriate employees and high-level local staff, according to company documents and a former Semafo employee.

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by Semafo in May and seen by Reuters shows the runway would be used by a single-pilot Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft with up to 12 passengers.

That aircraft is suitable for flying a small number of employees, not a workforce of hundreds, said the former Semafo employee. “You need additional planes.”

At the time, the company intended to fly three times a week, the source said. He did not know if the plan had been altered since May.

AMS and Perenti declined to say whether they supported Hickey’s proposal to fly all employees.

His plan called for two Beech 1900D propeller aircraft and four pilots to make multiple trips each week at an annual cost of between $3.4 million to $3.8 million, according to the emailed proposal seen by Reuters.

Flying only senior management and expatriate staff would cost $1.5 million to $2 million, the proposal said.



The runway was still under construction at the time of the November ambush, Kabre and the former mine employee said. It was not clear when it would be finished.