Oil exploration has started in the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia.

Canadian firm Africa Oil is behind the project and has started to drill a 3,800m well in the Dahoor Valley block in northeast Somalia.

Reports claimed the firm was expecting to find between three and four billion barrels of oil.

The first stage of the operation, which has been planned since 2005, is expected to take three months.

For decades the region has been seen as having a great oil-producing potential province. Significant oil explorations were undertaken in the late 1980s but political instability and violence ruptured the country in 1991 and led to a two-decade-long civil war that blocked further exploration.

The region is also said to be rich in other mineral resources but they remain largely unexplored.

Africa Oil hoped that the work generated by oil exploration and the dividend received by the government would help raise standards of living for Somalians - a desperately poor people.

Puntland 's coastal location, however, makes the state vulnerable to piracy.