(Recasts with start of operations)
By Giulia Paravicini and Dawit Endeshaw
ADDIS ABABA, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Ethiopia said on Wednesday it has begun military operations in the Tigray region, after the prime minister accused the local government of attacking federal troops.
In September, Tigray held regional elections in defiance of the federal government, which called the vote "illegal". The row has escalated in recent days with both sides accusing each other of plotting a military conflict.
Military operations in the region had commenced, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told Reuters, without giving further details.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) attempted to steal artillery and other equipment from federal forces stationed there, Abiy's office said in a statement.
"The last red line has been crossed with this morning's attacks and the federal government is therefore forced into a military confrontation," the statement said.
The Ethiopian National Defence Forces have been ordered to carry out "their mission to save the country and the region from spiralling into instability", it added said.
Tigray's local government said that the Northern Command of the federal military, which is stationed in the region, had defected to its side. Billene dismissed the claim as "false information".
Internet access monitor NetBlocks said that the Internet had been shut down in the region, confirming reports that authorities had shut down telephone and Internet services.
Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of the Tigray region, said on Monday that Abiy's government was planning to attack the region to punish it for holding the September election.
The developments in Ethiopia could have grave consequences for the region, warned Asnake Kefale, an associate professor of political science at the University of Addis Ababa.
"This conflict could destabilise the wider region if the Ethiopian army can't get the violence across the country under control," Asnake said.
Tigrayans ruled Ethiopian politics since guerrilla fighters ousted a Marxist dictator in 1991, but their influence has waned under Abiy. Last year, the TPLF quit his ruling coalition.
Since Abiy came to power in 2018, many senior Tigrayan officials have been detained, fired or sidelined, in what the federal government describes as a clamp-down on corruption but Tigrayans see as a means to quell dissent.
Tigray's population makes up 5% of Ethiopia's 109 million people, but it is wealthier and more influential than many other, larger regions.
Its army is a well-trained force dating back to the 1980s when it led the guerrilla movement that brought the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition to power, analysts say. (Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Kim Coghill)
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