Canadian intermediate gold producer Semafo has confirmed at least 37 of its workers have been killed and around 60 injured in a suspected jihadist attack along the road to its flagship Boungou mine site in eastern Burkina Faso.
A number of gunmen are believed to have ambushed a convoy of five buses carrying local Semafo employees, contractors and suppliers in one of the region’s deadliest insurgent attacks in recent years.
Semafo president and chief executive officer Benoit Desormeaux said the company was “devastated by the unprecedented attack.”
“Our sincerest sympathies go out to the families and colleagues of the victims.”
Mr Desormeaux said the company’s priority now was to ensure the safety, security and well-being of its workforce, as well doing its “utmost” to support those who have been affected.
Some of the victims were employees of Perth-based diversified mining services company Perenti Global (ASX: PRN), which has a site team in Burkina Faso under subsidiary African Mining Surfaces.
“It is with deep sadness that Perenti advises that … there have been a number of fatalities and injuries, however we are still working to confirm details with local authorities,” the company said in a statement.
“We are currently working with local authorities to ensure the safety and well-being of our workforce – this is our highest priority.”
The convoy, escorted by local military personnel, was travelling along a road between the town of Fada and the Boungou mine when a military vehicle reportedly hit an explosive device and “unidentified armed individuals” opened fire.
The convoy was 40km from the mine, located in the Tapoa province, at the time of the incident.
“Boungou mine site remains secured and our operations are not affected,” Semafo said in a statement immediately following the attacks.
“We are actively working with all levels of authorities to ensure the ongoing safety and security of our employees, contractors and suppliers.”
Based in Montreal, Semafo has over 20 years’ experience building and operating mines in West Africa.
It owns and operates two mines in Burkina Faso – Boungou, which poured first gold in mid-2018, and the more established Mana mine which commenced production in 2008.
The company is no stranger to regional violence, having weathered three deadly attacks in the past 18 months.
In August 2018, an armed incident occurred along the road between Fada and the Boungou mine, killing five military personnel and one Semafo sub-contractor.
Six days later, a bus transporting Semafo workers from the town of Bobo-Dioulasso to the Mana mine was shot at by armed bandits, killing one employee and one sub-contractor.
And in December, four government security officers and a civilian driver were killed in their vehicle on the road between Fada and Boungou.
While the incidents had zero impact on mining operations, Semafo announced it would increase its security measures in Burkina Faso, transporting ex-pat employees by helicopter from the capital city of Ouagadougou to Boungou and Mana.
It said it would also deploy a ground military force on the route between the mines and Ouagadougou and introduce heightened escorts for transport of national workers from the mines to their homes.
Once a peaceful nation, Burkina Faso has become a hotspot of violent attacks and suspected terrorist activity which have triggered a humanitarian crisis for its 20 million inhabitants.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than a 250,000 people have been displaced by violence over the last three months and more than 500 have been killed in 472 attacks and counter-military operations since last year.
At least three known rebel groups operate in the landlocked nation: the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (linked to al-Qaeda), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara Group, and locally-rooted Ansarul Islam.
The groups are believed to have spread across the border from neighbouring Mali where Islamist militants took over the north of the country in 2012 before French troops intervened to push them out.
Burkina Faso’s local Burkinabe army – which itself suffered heavy losses after terrorists stormed a military base in August – has been unable to stop the attacks.
On Thursday, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said her country would deploy an additional 4,500 troops to Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad to help flush out the fighters.
Australians in West Africa
Burkina Faso has long been recognised as a premier mineral province – it is currently the fourth largest gold-producer in West Africa and its mining-friendly government has commissioned seven gold mines there in the past 12 years.
The nation has a known gold endowment of more than 60 million ounces, with the majority of new gold discoveries made in the past 15 years.
Australian companies, such as those below, are particularly keen to exploit Burkina Faso primarily for its significant and high-grade gold resources.
Arrow Minerals (ASX: AMD)
Arrow Minerals holds a 100% interest in 12 exploration licences and two applications, totalling 2,013 square kilometres in Burkina Faso.
The licences host six gold projects – Boulsa, Divole East, Divole West, Gourma, Hounde South and Nako.
Aurora Minerals (ASX: ARM)
Perth-based Aurora Minerals holds a 13.5% interest in Predictive Discovery which owns several assets in Burkina Faso.
Blina Minerals NL (ASX: BDI)
The Diakouli gold joint venture project gives Blina Minerals the right to acquire an 80% stake by spending $1.45 million on exploration over four years.
Blina is planning to conduct an “ambitious and extensive program” to completely explore the geological, geophysical and geochemical data on the licence.
Canyon Resources (ASX: CAY)
Canyon Resources claims its four projects along West Africa’s greenstone belt have the potential to host significant mineral resources.
The Taparko North, Tao, Derosa and Pinarello projects are along strike from the 2Moz Taparko and 5Moz Essakane gold mines.
Golden Rim Resources (ASX: GMR)
Golden Rim Resources is advancing the Kouri gold project in Burkina Faso. The company is actively drilling across the project and has intersected numerous high-grade gold intervals including 7m at 121.g/t gold and 1m at 783.8g/t gold.
Golden Rim also owns the Babonga gold project where aircore drilling uncovered widespread bedrock gold mineralisation.
Mako Gold (ASX: MKG)
At the Niou project, Mako Gold has an option agreement to secure 100% of the asset from a Burkina Faso vendor.
Mako has also lodged a permit for Niou Sud, which covers 250sq km adjacent to Niou.
Previous drilling at Niou returned 24m at 2.73g/t gold from 18, 15m at 2.3g/t gold from 60m and 3m at 18.91g/t gold from 97m.
Predictive Discovery (ASX: PDI)
In joint venture with Progress Minerals, Predictive Discovery has an interest in Bongou, Bira, Tambiri, Bolle and Kourakou gold projects in Burkina Faso.
Predictive Discovery is free-carried through to development of the Burkina Faso joint venture assets.
Scorpion Minerals (ASX: SCN)
Scorpion Minerals is earning a 70% interest in the Dablo polymetallic project which is prospective for gold along with palladium, platinum, nickel and copper.
No work is underway at the project until the security situation in the country stabilises. However, Scorpion’s joint venture partner terminated the Dablo agreement in July.
Scorpion stated it retains all rights to the project under the original agreement and is evaluating legal proceedings.
West African Resources (ASX: WAF)
Advanced gold explorer West African Resources is advancing the Sanbrado project in Burkina Faso.
The project is on track for first gold pour in mid-2020.
West African is developing an open pit operation, with construction of the plant and associated infrastructure 70% complete.