Haiti's historical heritage risks being bulldozed in the push to rebuild towns and cities flattened by last month's earthquake, a leading Haitian cultural official warned Monday.

"There is a temptation to demolish everything. When the bulldozers come, it's fatal," Daniel Elie, director of Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National, a governmental agency devoted to the preservation of Haiti's cultural heritage, told The Associated Press.

Elie was speaking from Paris where he is joining Haiti's culture and communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, and officials from the UN cultural agency UNESCO to discuss the most urgent needs for restoring historical and cultural sites damaged in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Keeping survivors alive and building solid shelter for the 1.2 million made homeless by the quake are the most immediate priorities, UN officials said, but preserving the country's churches, artwork and mementos from its slave revolt will be crucial for Haitians' long-term emotional recovery.

Cathedrals and other buildings dating as far back as the 17th century were among the structures damaged in the quake, some reduced to their foundations or a lone crumbling wall. In that state, Elie said, their cultural value isn't obvious to demolition teams sent to raze neighbourhoods, he said.

His agency is compiling lists of buildings that should be protected to send around to other government agencies.

Despite the country's current administrative disarray, "We must make everyone, everywhere sensitive to this," he said.

Irina Bokova, director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said the agency has contacted "quite a few donors who have expressed their availability to finance" restoration projects. She would not name them but said the restoration effort could involve European governments or private donors.

Elie said "the priority of priorities" is restoring the historical centre of Jacmel, a 17th- century coastal town once home to wealthy coffee merchants, with a turquoise bay and a serene reputation that attracted tourists and expatriates. About three-quarters of the homes in Jacmel's downtown were damaged.

"The historical centre is the basis of tourism development" as the country tries to recover some semblance of a tourism sector, he said.

The Haitian government wants UNESCO to designate Jacmel a world heritage site.

Haitians and their international backers must respect history and culture as they rebuild the nation, Lassegue said.

"Heritage is so closely linked to national identity," she said.

UNESCO is also pushing for a ban on international trade in Haitian cultural treasures to prevent pillaging of the nation's museums in the aftermath of the quake. It also urged international security forces to protect cultural sites.