Turkey began a controversial oil and gas drilling program in Northern Cyprus on Thursday, further raising tensions with the Greek Cypriot South of the island over who owns the rights to its potential mineral resources.

Both sides of the divided island claim sovereignty over its territorial waters, with the South launching its own search for gas that sparked protests from Ankara and Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz joined Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu at the opening of the Turkyurdu-1 drill site near the disputed border between the two countries.

We may not extract oil or gas from this well, but drilling is part of a wider package, said Yildiz, according to the AP.  This work has strategic significance and we attribute great importance to it. ... We will not allow anyone to take away the rights of Turkish Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean, said Eroglu.

The exploration comes at a time of heightened tension between the two bitter rivals.

Last year, Greek Cyprus licensed U.S.-based explorer Noble Energy to explore an offshore area for natural gas. The South also blocked Turkey's entry into the European Union, further angering Ankara.

The Turkish operation, according to experts, is more symbolic than practical. This move is clearly a response to Greek drilling, Hugh Pope, director of the Turkey/Cyprus Project at the International Crisis Group, told the Wall Street Journal.

The prerequisite for peace is normalization of relations and this doesn't help anyone. ... This is driving the division of the island into a dead end.