The destruction of priceless artefacts by Islamist militants in northern Iraq is not just a cultural "tragedy", but a major security issue, Unesco said on 27 February.

The attack on the collection of sculptures and statues by men armed with sledgehammers and drills was a deliberate attempt to destabilise the country and provoke sectarianism, the director-general of the United Nations' cultural body told a news conference.

"This tragedy is far from being simply a cultural issue, it is a major security issue. And we can see that the terrorists are using the destruction of heritage in a terror strategy to destabilise and manipulate the population and ensure their domination," Irina Bokova said.

Video footage released by Islamic State showed men destroying the Assyrian era exhibits which came from an antiquities museum in Mosul, the northern city which was overrun by Islamic State last June.

"They want to show that it's a 'tabula rasa', nothing exists before them, it doesn't matter, there is no culture, there is no history, there is no anything else that existed before, it's intended then to show it in such a vivid manner, such an appalling, I would say, shocking manner, is precisely (that) they want to create deep divisions," Bokova said.

Though she acknowledged that Unesco's capacity to act on the ground was limited, she immediately called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the incident and the protection of Iraq's cultural heritage.

"I know that there is not much that we can do in order to go there on the site. Unesco doesn't have an army, Unesco doesn't have blue helmets or anything else, we are more into working closely with those parts of the United Nations, those units who have this possibility of adopting, integrating them into some of the security responses," she said.

She also pointed out that previous Security Council resolutions provide for the protection of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria and adopt measures to counter illegal trafficking of objects.

Articles from the Unesco world heritage site of Hatra and from the Mesopotamian city of Nineveh were among the items destroyed in what Iraq's permanent delegate to Unesco described as a "crime".

Islamic State espouses a fiercely purist school of Sunni Islam, deeming many other Muslims to be heretics. Its fighters have destroyed Shi'ite and Sufi religious sites and attacked churches and other shrines in the parts of Syria and Iraq under their control.