BANGKOK Jan 7 (Reuters) - Despite an army "hearts and minds" campaign, last year was the bloodiest in Muslim southern Thailand since a separatist insurgency began four years ago, a Thai research institute said on Monday.
In 2007, 792 people were killed, taking the death toll in four years of unrest in Thailand's four southernmost provinces to 2,776, Prince of Songkhla University's "Deep South Watch" think-tank said.
The tally is compiled from media, police and army reports.
Victims continued to come from both the Buddhist minority and Muslim majority in the region, a Malay-speaking sultanate annexed by Bangkok a century ago.
Rights groups accuse security forces of having a hand in some of the killings -- a charge they deny.
Since his installation after a September 2006 coup, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has travelled to the south to apologise for the heavy-handed military response of his ousted predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, but the violence has raged on.
Thaksin, a billionaire telecoms tycoon, flooded the region with 30,000 troops and police, alienating many Muslims, but also promised millions of dollars in development aid in a backwater border region infamous for crime and smuggling.
On Monday, a Buddhist sweet vendor was taken to hospital in Yala after being shot three times in the torso by a gunman riding on a motorcycle, an attack typical of insurgents who have never identified themselves of made their aims public.
On Sunday, a 30-year-old Muslim teacher was shot dead while walking home from evening prayers, police said.
The current spate of violence started in January 2004 with a raid on a military barracks and a slew of arson attacks on schools. After nearly a decade of relative calm in the region, the assault took Thai security forces completely by surprise. (Reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Ed Cropley and Alex Richardson)