ALGIERS - Al-Qaeda has named a replacement for Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a key commander of its North African branch who was killed in fighting with French-led forces in northern Mali, Algerian TV reported on Sunday.

The appointment of Djamel Okacha, a 34-year-old Algerian also known as Yahia Aboul Hammam, still has to be approved by a meeting of the leadership of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the head of Algeria's Ennahar TV, Mohamed Mokkedem, told AFP. Okacha is a close aide of AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel and considered the "real leader" of the group, Mokkedem added. Okacha takes charge of the group's operations in both southern Algeria and northern Mali, where it had seized a vast swathe of territory last year but is now facing a massive counter-offensive by French-led troops.

His predecessor Abou Zeid, 46, was credited with having significantly expanded the jihadist group's field of operation to Tunisia and Niger, and for kidnapping activities across the region.

France confirmed on Saturday that Abou Zeid had been killed "during fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali in late February". "The elimination of one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel," the office of French President Francois Hollande said.

Okacha has had a meteoric rise in the group despite not having gone to Afghanistan as other key militants such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar did. Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist leader who masterminded an assault on an Algerian gas plant that left 37 foreign hostages dead in January, was reportedly killed by Chadian troops in Mali earlier this month.

Okacha spent around 18 months in prison in Algeria in the 1990s when the country was mired in Islamist violence.

As a member of feared extremist organisations the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GPSC), which later became AQMI, he was active in northern Algeria, Mokeddem said.

Born in the northern town of Reghaia he was later condemned to death by a court in southern Algeria for acts of terrorism.