Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir on Sunday replaced powerful intelligence chief Mohammed Atta, 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 (NISS), SUNA said, without providing further details.
Salih, widely known as Salih Ghosh, 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.
In recent weeks NISS has been leading a crackdown on sporadic opposition protests that have erupted since early January against rising food prices.
Protesters have taken to the streets after bread prices increased on the back of 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.
The agency has also arrested several senior leaders of opposition groups since January in a bid to prevent the protests from spreading.
The authorities have 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, until Sunday a lawmaker for the ruling National Congress Party, worked on and off for NISS since the 1989 coup that brought Bashir to power, according to Sudanese media.
As its chief, he was credited with building NISS into one of the most powerful security agencies of Bashir’s regime before his dismissal in 2009.
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.
Salih is still seen as a powerful and influential figure despite the coup accusations that were made against him, Magnus Taylor, Sudan analyst at International Crisis Group told AFP.
“He may be seen (by the president) as a strong guy who could handle the difficult political situation given the recent protests,” Taylor said.
“It may suggest that President Bashir is shoring up the leadership of NISS behind him by appointing a very established powerful figure as its chief.”