THE HAGUE - More than a million Syrians are living under sieges mostly enforced by regime forces five years into the war, a new NGO report said Tuesday, warning the crisis was “far worse” than the UN has admitted.

A joint project collecting data from a network extending deep into trapped Syrian communities came to the grim conclusion that inadequate UN reporting may also “inadvertently encourage the expansion of the Syrian government’s ‘surrender or starve’ strategy.” Citing the example of the town of Madaya where 46 people have died from starvation since December, the report warned the true extent of the crisis was being masked by what it said was the UN’s “under-reporting” of the situation on the ground.

Pictures of severely emaciated adults and children in Madaya emerged late last year, and some humanitarian access was finally allowed into the town after a global outcry. But Madaya did not even figure on a UN list of trapped communities, said the report from Siege Watch, a joint project launched by the Washington-based Syria Institute and PAX, a peace organisation based in the Netherlands. New data gathered by the NGOs listed 46 communities around Syria where it said a total of 1,099,475 people are besieged. The overwhelming majority are encircled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The figure could be even higher as the reporting began in November 2015, before the start of the latest regime assault to encircle rebel-held areas of northern Aleppo, which has sent tens of thousands fleeing.

People in besieged Syrian communities had an “elevated risk of death” due to deprivation from lack of food as well as electricity and running water, the report said.

“The scale of the crisis of besieged areas in Syria is far worse than the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has acknowledged,” the report said.

In response, Syrians “have begun to acclimatise to a more primitive lifestyle,” adopting “survival tactics” such as rooftop gardening and burning plastics to extract oil. Syria’s nearly five-year conflict has claimed 260,000 lives and displaced half the population since March 2011.

The latest UN figures released in January put the number of people under siege at 486,700 people, with more than living half in areas encircled by regime forces. But Siege Watch said its data pointed to “continued under-reporting of the siege crisis in Syria” in monthly UN reports.

The UN’s “characterisation does not accurately reflect the situation on the ground,” the report said.

Out of the 46 besieged communities, only two - the towns of Fuaa and Kefraya in Idlib province - were being held hostage by opposition forces.

A third area - Deir Ezzor city where some 200,000 are trapped - was encircled by both militants from the Islamic State group and regime forces, it said. The report said the UN’s misreporting of the numbers under siege meant that many people remained “unaware of the extent of the crisis and the international response has been muted as a result.”

Peace talks aimed at trying to end the conflict were suspended until February 25, with the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura saying “more work” was needed to prepare all sides for the negotiations.

Meanwhile, a suicide car bombing killed nine people Tuesday at a police officer’s club in the Syrian capital, a monitor said, in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 20 people were also wounded in the Damascus blast, adding that policemen were among the dead and injured.

The monitor said the suicide bomber had been wearing a police uniform, a tactic used in the past by IS.

The militant group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement circulated on social media.

It said one its members had detonated an explosives-laden car at a club for “criminal” police officers, and claimed that the attack had killed nearly 20 people and wounded 40.

Syrian state television initially reported the blast had hit a vegetable market in the Masaken Barzeh district in northern Damascus.

But it subsequently cited a source in the interior ministry saying a car had tried to ram into the police officer’s club in the area, but was stopped by guards.

“A suicide bomber then detonated his explosives, causing deaths and injuries,” the state broadcaster reported.

Syrian state news agency SANA said three people were killed and 14 wounded in the attack.

Car bombs have been used regularly in Syria’s war, often to devastating effect.

While the capital has been largely spared, a multiple bomb attack near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine outside the city killed at least 71 people last month.

More than 260,000 people have died in Syria’s conflict since it began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

The Kremlin on Tuesday issued a rare rebuke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel a day after she criticised Russian air strikes in Syria.

In Ankara on Monday, Merkel - referring to air strikes including those carried out by Russia - said “we are horrified in the face of this human suffering.”

Her comments represented some of the sharpest criticism yet of Russia’s aerial campaign by Merkel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Merkel should carefully watch what she said on the Syrian crisis.

“We once again call on everyone to be very careful and responsible in their choice of words, given the already delicate situation in Syria now and the Syrian settlement,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Despite complaints from the West and the Syrian opposition, Russia had not received any credible evidence of civilian deaths from air strikes, Peskov said.

He also said no voices had been raised in protest against the “barbaric actions of terrorists” when they assaulted Syrian regime forces in the past.

“No one made any statements of this kind at the time,” Peskov told reporters.

Syria peace talks were suspended in Switzerland last week as the West and the Syrian opposition accused Moscow of targeting civilians and seeking a military solution to the nearly five-year war.

Asked on Monday whether Russia would press ahead with its bombing campaign in Syria if the peace talks resume, Peskov declined to comment.

Fears mount that Syria’s mainstream opposition rebels risk total collapse after a Russian-backed regime advance that severed their main supply line to the city of Aleppo.