LONDON — British oil exploration company Desire Petroleum PLC began drilling at a spot north of the disputed Falkland Islands on Monday, the company said.
The announcement is sure to infuriate Argentina, which claims the south Atlantic islands as its own and calls them Las Malvinas.
Argentina lost a seven-week war over the islands to Britain in 1982 and the two countries have since pledged to resolve their differences peacefully. But moves to begin exploiting what could be lucrative reserves of oil and gas around the islands have sent tensions soaring.
"The well is being drilled to an estimated target depth of circa 3,500 meters (11,500 feet)," the company said in a statement. "Drilling operations are expected to take approximately 30 days."
The dispute over the Falklands dates back to the 19th century, when the islands were seized by the British. Argentina has sought their return ever since, invading in April 1982 and holding them until June, when British forces retook the territory.
Full diplomatic relations were restored in 1990 and both sides have since largely agreed to disagree on the issue of sovereignty. But anger over the issue still lingers and has been exacerbated by the prospect that Argentina could lose out on mineral wealth discovered offshore.
As the drilling platform made its way to the islands, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez decreed that any ship traveling to or from the islands must get prior permission from her country — a requirement Britain told captains to ignore. The Latin American nation is taking the diplomatic offensive, lobbying countries at the Rio Group summit in Cancun next week to condemn what he called Britain's "unilateral and illegal" exploration in the islands and urge Britain to sit down for sovereignty talks.
Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana then plans an audience with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, seeking help to pressure Britain to follow U.N. resolutions urging both countries to negotiate their competing claims.
One estimate has put the amount of oil beneath the seabed around the Falklands at 60 billion barrels, something Robert Munks, Americas analyst with IHS Jane's, said was on par with world-class oil fields.
"Sixty billion barrels is a large amount," Munks told BBC television. "It's as large as a large field in Saudi Arabia. But that is only one estimate of several estimates ... I should underline of course that there could be nothing there at all. This is all speculative guesswork."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged Sunday to send his armed forces to Argentina's defense if British attacks, telling his allies they can "have the security of knowing they aren't alone" against what he called Britain's threats. But Argentine diplomats have ruled out a military response to what it considers British aggression.
"Get out of there, give the Malvinas back to the Argentine people. Enough already with the empire," Chavez said.
But Munks said that Argentine anger over the development of the area's energy wealth was unlikely to translate into military conflict.
"This over-exaggerated talk about war that we've seen, that's not going to come to pass," he told the broadcaster. "I think it's going to remain relatively calm."
Animosity over the issue apparently spilled onto the Internet over the weekend, when the site of Penguin News, the weekly newspaper which serves the Falklands' approximately 2,500 inhabitants, was hacked.
Office manager Fran Biggs said attackers replaced the site with "a large Argentine flag" and added that the paper had recently received a stream of abusive e-mails from Argentina, with several references to "British pirates."
But she seemed fairly blase about the rising temperature of the rhetoric surrounding the islands.
"This happens quite a bit," Biggs said.