Africa's Small Arms Race

02.22.13 4:47 PM ET


Well, this ought to be interesting.

Three times in the past two decades, Mali's army fought separatist fighters from the local Tuareg people to a draw. Those rebels, however, often kept their assault rifles switched to "single shot" mode to preserve ammunition, said Nicolas Florquin, senior researcher at Geneva's Small Arms Survey, who interviewed former rebels.

By contrast, fighters from AQIM—a militant group that enlisted many Tuareg rebels—sent local troops fleeing when they swept across northern Mali last year with pickup truck-mounted 14.5mm machine guns. When the militants snuck into Gao last week, they pumped five hours of machine-gun fire from rooftops and alleys as Malian troops hid in a market and shot back without result, witnesses said.

"You don't go to war with the materials you'd want," a Mali Defense Ministry spokesman said. "You go to war with the materials you have right now."