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Satellite images reveal the lost temples of Angkor

Hidden behind a leafy screen of jungle greenery, its elegantly carved masonry sprouting twisted vines and branches, the temple ruins of Angkor epitomise the exotic and the picturesque. But this remote corner of north- west Cambodia, wracked by political instability and littered with deadly Khmer Rouge minefields, has until now remained largely uncharted by archaeologists, however enthralled they are by its ancient mystery.

But high-resolution satellite images, released by scientists from the United States space agency Nasa from a 1994 space shuttle mission to photograph the Earth, have revealed startling new evidence of architectural features away from the known temples of Angkor.

Most dramatically, the images which pierce the thick monsoon clouds and the dense tree canopy of the Khmer Rouge-infested jungles, show what appears to be a group of up to 12 stunning 14th-century temples hidden beneath the thick vegetation in areas firmly under guerrilla control.

"It's very exciting to have found these new monuments, but we can't say yet what they will contain," said Dr. Elizabeth Moore, an archaeologist from the London School of Oriental and African Studies, who has been viewing the images. "We need to get an archaeologist on the ground to record exactly what it is we have stumbled upon," she added, "although with the Cambodian situation the way it is, the area is now more dangerous than ever to explore". As long-standing strongholds of the brutal Khmer Rouge, many of the outlying temples at Angkor have been out of bounds to visitors for more than 20 years.

Even United Nations maps of the area outside the UN-protected archaeological park read "God Only Knows". But in the past month, even the main complexes of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Cambodia's only real tourist attractions, have become risky to visit as rival government forces clashed just a few miles away following the coup d'etat in July. Crackling gunfire and the dull thud of incoming shells shattered their tranquillity, but the temples were not damaged. The hope is that at least some of the newly revealed structures have escaped, not only the fighting, but the chisels and hammers of the looters who have ravaged the rest of Angkor for more than a century.

Meanwhile, scholars have gathered in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to interpret the stunning Nasa images of Angkor, where as many as 1 million people lived at the height of the Khmer empire, before it mysteriously fell into ruin around the 15th century. "The images also reveal large circular villages surrounded by moats which are very unusual and probably very ancient, dating from perhaps as long ago as 500BC," Dr Moore said, "well before what we understand to be the foundation of Angkor, which doesn't really come into being until more than a thousand years later."

There are also several significant geological features revealed by the satellite images, including a complex network of river channels criss- crossing the area: according to Dr Moore, this could help unravel the mysteries surrounding the temple-city, the vast construction costs of which are believed to have tumbled the empire that built it. "I think all these scraps of evidence will help us understand why Angkor is where it is, and more importantly, is what it is," she said.