Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir replaced intelligence chief Mohammed Atta, amid a crackdown on opposition protests against rising food prices. Picture: Xinhua/Mohamed Khidir

Khartoum, Sudan - Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir Sunday replaced powerful intelligence chief Mohammed Atta, the official news agency SUNA reported, amid a security crackdown on opposition protests against rising food prices.

Bashir issued a presidential decree announcing Salah Abdallah Mohammed Salih as the new head of the country's National Intelligence and Security Service, SUNA said, without providing further details.

Salih had previously headed NISS and was replaced by his then deputy Atta in August 2009.

Atta's removal came after he returned this week from Cairo where he was part of a Sudanese delegation that held talks with Egyptian officials on several issues including security.

His replacement also comes at a time when NISS is leading a crackdown on sporadic opposition protests that have erupted from early January against rising food prices.

Protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks after bread prices increased, following a government decision to leave wheat imports to the private sector that triggered a sharp rise in the cost of flour.

NISS agents and anti-riot police have swiftly broken up these rallies held in Khartoum and some other parts of the country.

NISS agents have also arrested several senior leaders of opposition groups since January in a bid to prevent the protests from spreading.

The authorities have also detained several journalists covering the protests. Most of them have now been released.

"The NISS seems to be arresting just about any journalist it can catch," Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in a statement this week.

"This wave of arrests and confiscations of newspapers since the start of the year is unprecedented."

Under Atta, NISS stepped up its overall crackdown on opposition activists and anti-government media coverage.

NISS agents confiscated entire print-runs of newspapers that criticised government policies or reported on anti-government protests.

Salih, who studied engineering, has worked on and off for NISS since the 1989 coup that brought Bashir to power, according to Sudanese media.

As its chief, he is credited with building NISS into one of the most powerful security agencies of Bashir's regime.

But in 2009 he was removed as NISS chief. 

He was later jailed on accusations that he had planned a coup to topple Bashir, but no evidence was found against him and the president pardoned him.

Until Sunday, he was a lawmaker for the ruling National Congress Party.