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A man casts his ballot in a local election in the regional capital Mekelle, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, on Sept. 9, 2020.

The Associated Press

People voted Wednesday in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region in a local election defying the federal government and increasing political tensions in Africa’s second most populous country.

Tigray officials had warned that an intervention by the federal government would amount to a “declaration of war.” They have objected to the postponement of the national election, once set for August, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the extension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s time in office.

Over the weekend, Ethiopia’s upper house of parliament called Wednesday’s election unconstitutional. Ethiopia’s leader ruled out a military intervention, but there had been fears any punitive measures by the federal government could further escalate tensions.

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The standoff with the northern region is the latest challenge to the administration of Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year in part for introducing political reforms. He took office in early 2018. The Tigray region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, was the dominant one in Ethiopia’s previous government.

“This election is illegal because only the National Election Board can conduct elections in Ethiopia,” Abiy said in an interview with the state broadcaster, EBC, on Tuesday evening. "TPLF’s rule over the region is extended until the upcoming election. If the party doesn’t take part in the general election, it won’t be acceptable.

“These types of small gatherings won’t be a headache for us,” Abiy added.

Some 2.7 million people in the Tigray region had been expected to cast their votes at more than 2,600 polling stations, regional election officials said. They are electing members of the regional parliament, which in turn will choose the region’s cabinet and administrators.

“I am here because I want to exercise my self-governance rights,” said one voter, Tekeste Girmay, adding that the authorities “will have a big role in preventing coronavirus from spreading.” Ethiopia in recent weeks saw a sharp rise in confirmed cases.

Two residents of the regional capital, Mekelle, told The Associated Press there was tight security in the city and surrounding areas. Bikes and auto rickshaws were banned from the city as of Tuesday evening.

On Monday, Ethiopian security officials removed reporters from a plane heading to the region, confiscating their I.D.s, cameras and other equipment. Separately, a non-governmental organization told the AP they were barred from observing the election “for no sufficient reason.”

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The group, Seb Hidri, said the Tigray People’s Liberation Front was behind the ban.

As polls closed, the Tigray region’s communications office called the election a historic victory and great achievement. It labelled the federal government as “dictatorial” and said the vote was “vital for the Tigray people because it reassures their destiny and self-determination.”

Tigray TV, a regional broadcaster, said results should be announced Thursday.

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