STUDENTS from North Africa have been prevented from travelling to Oxford for a conference, the organisers said today.

Oxford-based charity Talk Together had planned to bring young people to the city from both sides of the dispute over Western Sahara.

Most of the former Spanish colony is occupied by Morocco, though many people from the territory, including the Polisario resistance movement, dispute Moroccan control.

According to the charity, a group of six Saharawi students from Laayoune, Western Sahara, was refused permission to board flights on Wednesday.

It was last night understood some were staying at Agadir Airport, in Morocco, in protest.

Meanwhile, seven students from Morocco also failed to take their scheduled flights from Casablanca Airport.

Andrew Brown, director of the organisation, said he had been informed by the Moroccan Embassy they all had ‘family problems’ which prevented them travelling to Oxford.

He said: “These people had been preparing and planning for the trip, only to be turned back at the last minute.”

Mr Brown said the group had anticipated there could be problems with the group from Laayoune, but could see no reason for the Moroccan students to be denied access.

He said: “We have heard bits and pieces, but nothing has been corroborated.

“We originally had reports of a hunger strike. There were also reports that people from Laayoune were afraid to leave the airport because they feared they were going to be arrested. Then we heard one person was remaining there to make a protest.”

He is now expecting a video update from the Laayoune group via email, and hopes the rest of the course, at St Edward’s School, Woodstock Road, will go ahead.

One of the people who did manage to arrive at the school was 21-year-old Senia Bachir Abderahman, who was born in a refugee camp in Tindouf, Algeria.

She said: “I have never met any Moroccans from Morocco – only a few immigrants who don’t know anything about the conflict.

“I was looking forward to getting their perspective and listening to what they had to say. I am very disappointed this has happened.

“What has happened is an indication of the seriousness of the situation.”

Other participants include young people from Britain, Norway and the Phillipines, conflict resolution expert Robert Krzisnik and a documentary film crew.

Organisers are now seeking people from Morocco who are currently in Oxford or elsewhere in the UK, to take part.

The event goes on until Tuesday, August 18.

No-one from the Moroccan Embassy was available to comment.

The dispute over Western Sahara, which is in north-west Africa, goes back decades. However, the current disagreement began in earnest when Spain pulled out of the region in 1975.

Most of the territory has been under Moroccan control since 1976, which has been disputed by the Polisario resistance movement.

Between 1976 and 1991, when a ceasefire was declared, Polisario led a guerrilla war against Moroccan forces.

Algeria allowed refugees from the region to settle in Tindouf – Polisario’s base – which led to its involvement in the dispute.

Mauritanian territories have also become embroiled in discussions over control of the area.

Efforts to negotiate have been largely unsuccessful, with talks in London, Lisbon and Houston failing to reach any agreements.

Today, an estimated 170,000 live in refugee camps in Algeria, many separated from families.