Somalia oil exploration: Drilling begins in Puntland

image captionThe region of Somalia where the wells are being drilled may have reserves of up to 4bn barrels of oil

Oil exploration has begun in the arid north-east of Somalia, which has been wracked by civil war for two decades.

The Canadian firm Africa Oil behind the project said its two wells are the first to be drilled there in 21 years.

The semi-autonomous Puntland region where the drilling is taking place says it is an opportunity for peace.

"It's a new beginning - if oil is found it will change Somalia for the better," Issa Farah head of Puntland's Petroleum and Minerals Agency told the BBC.

Speaking on the BBC's Focus on Africa programme, he said it was an important development not only for Puntland, but the whole of Somalia, which has not had a functioning central government since 1991 and has been convulsed by fighting between militias.

"I think in 10 years' time - if oil is found, we will see a better country, a stronger country that lives in peace and prosperity with its own neighbours and hopefully that produces what we have been all looking for - peace, prosperity, development and progress," he said.

In the area where the two wells are being drilled to a depth of 3,800m (about two miles), there is an assumption that "there will be about 3bn to 4bn barrels of oil", he said.

Nigeria, which is Africa's biggest oil producer, is estimated by the International Energy Agency to hold 37bn barrels of reserve oil.

According to Africa Oil, whose firm Horn Petroleum Corporation is operating the project, the drilling of each well will take about three months.

"These wells are the first to be drilled into the deep areas of the rift basins and will be key to unlocking the hydrocarbon potential of this unexplored prospective trend," David Grellman, head of Horn Petroleum Corporation, said in a statement.

Mr Farah said that Puntland would not allow this "historic project" - involving three oil firms - to be a curse, as oil has proved in some other African countries.

"Before any barrel of oil comes out will have a policy that will benefit our own people and will not be detrimental to us," he said.

"We want this to be something that can improve our lives, not take us back into the dark ages."

Puntland is relatively stable compared with other parts of Somalia, but many of the pirates who function off the country's coast are based in the region.

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