Vancouver mining executives trapped in their rooms as gunmen stormed Mali hotel

VANCOUVER – Two Vancouver businessmen hid silently in their rooms for seven hours as gunmen stormed their hotel in Mali, sending text messages describing the sounds of gunfire and grenades to horrified colleagues in Canada.

The B2Gold Corp. executives were in the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital Bamako when Islamist militants launched the attack Friday morning. Unable to talk on the phone or leave their rooms, the men spent all day reporting what they were hearing through texts and emails, said CEO Clive Johnson.

Johnson was supposed to be on the same trip but had to stay in Vancouver due to knee surgery complications. He was in constant communication with his coworkers, which meant staying up all night due to the time difference.

“It was surreal to be on that end of it and to think what they were going through, and that I would have been in the same situation,” he said.

The militants took about 170 hostages and killed 19 of them in the mass shooting, for which the jihadist group Al-Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility in co-operation with al-Qaida.

The executives were in the African country for a ground-breaking ceremony at the company’s Fekola mine, which is under construction. Luckily, the men hadn’t yet gone downstairs for breakfast at the restaurant, where the attack began.

Johnson said the company’s security advisors were instructing the two men and they spent much of the day either lying on the balcony or hiding in the bathrooms.

“Staying in the rooms was the right thing to do. Your instinct, obviously, is to want to get out of there.”

He said the men described “lots of commotion, equipment being moved around on the roof, and lots of bangs, which probably were stun grenades, lots and lots of shooting in the hallways.

“They’d have quiet periods where they’d think it was over, and then it would start up again. So it went on for a very long time.”

Despite the terrifying circumstances, he said his colleagues remained “remarkably calm and brave” until they were saved by Malian special forces who went room-to-room kicking down doors to rescue people inside.

“It was a huge relief,” said Johnson. “We were obviously very worried about them.”

Johnson said he didn’t want to reveal the identities of the executives without their consent but they were coping well and their flight was set to land in Vancouver late Saturday.

The company’s Fekola open-pit gold mine is scheduled to open in 2017. The ground-breaking ceremony went ahead on Friday without the two executives, the CEO said.

“We’re not going to change our plans in terms of what we’re trying to do, which is build a mine that will be very good for Mali,” he said. “If we stop creating jobs around the world and doing what we do well, then some would argue that (terrorists) win.”

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.