A diplomatic dispute has erupted within the Commonwealth group of nations about whether to invite Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to the group's annual heads-of-government meeting later this year.

Diplomatic sources say it started as a series of low-key behind-the-scenes meetings, but escalated into a full-scale diplomatic dispute when a spokesman for the Australian government told an Australian newspaper that the Zimbabwean president would not be invited to the meeting to be held in Nigeria in December.

That angered several African nations, particularly the host, Nigeria, and also South Africa, which has been a key intermediary between the Commonwealth group and its neighbor, Zimbabwe.

Diplomats say under the Commonwealth's usual procedures, Zimbabwe would not be invited to the meeting because it has been suspended. Pakistan is not invited either. It was suspended in 1999 after a military coup.

But the African states believe it was not up to Australia to announce anything, because it is not hosting the meeting. In addition, they say no decision has been made yet. South Africa, for one, is still hoping Zimbabwe will be invited to the meeting.

Although it appears on the surface to be a dispute over diplomatic protocol, it reflects a larger gap within the Commonwealth about how to handle the Zimbabwe situation. South African President Thabo Mbeki's spokesman, Bheki Khumalo, spoke to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"We want to appeal to the Australians to understand that megaphone diplomacy will not produce results," he said. "I mean, sanctions have been imposed against Zimbabwe now for a number of months, with no result at all. And therefore we think we really need to engage with all the role-players in that country, like we did in South Africa here, with the ANC working with its former enemies in building a new South Africa. And that's a model we must all of us encourage in Zimbabwe because we don't think that using megaphone diplomacy will work."

Australia, on the other hand, believes that the Commonwealth should take a moral stand against what it sees as serious human rights violations in Zimbabwe, similar to the stand the group took against South Africa during the apartheid era.

Zimbabwe has been suspended from the Commonwealth since early last year, after President Mugabe was returned to office in an election the Commonwealth considered seriously flawed.

The Commonwealth appointed three nations, South Africa, Nigeria and Australia, to figure out what action to take. They recommended a one-year suspension, which has already been extended once, and the Commonwealth heads of government are expected to take up the matter again at the December meeting in Nigeria.

Australia advocates continuing the sanctions, supported by Canada and New Zealand, while South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi and several other African nations want Zimbabwe to be brought back into the fold.

Nobody has come up with a broadly accepted way to deal with the Zimbabwe issue. Although South Africa condemns the Australian approach, the presidential spokesman, Mr. Khumalo, admits that South Africa's own policy of quiet diplomacy has not worked very well, either.

"We have not produced spectacular results, it's true, but you don't give up," said Mr. Khumalo. "I don't think we can have instant results. It will take us a number of months and weeks and years. But it does not mean then give up and use methods that I think are going to make the situation worse, and I think that's the biggest challenge we have."

South Africa's concern over the situation in Zimbabwe is based in part on how the crisis affects South Africa itself. Economists have said for years that the instability in Zimbabwe is hurting the economies of every country in the region. In addition, South African government officials frequently say they worry about the prospect of Zimbabwe imploding, creating a humanitarian crisis that will send thousands of refugees across the border into South Africa.

Analyst Steven Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg says President Mbeki is in a difficult position.

"It certainly is not an easy issue for a country like South Africa, I think that must be said from the start," he explained. "You can't impose sanctions without causing a great deal of disruption. Quite clearly some kind of military intervention is out of the question. So there is a difficult question about what do you do to hasten change along in this neighbor of ours."

South Africa is under pressure from Western governments to take a stronger stance on Zimbabwe. But Mr. Friedman says South Africa's diplomatic approach toward its neighbor is affected by a number of domestic political factors, as well.

"There are people in the South African government who are extremely nervous about the idea of a trade-union-led opposition successfully challenging a governing party that led the fight for independence, and it's pretty obvious why they should be worried about that sort of precedent," he pointed out. "And secondly, the racial button tends to be pressed, in the sense that there's a reluctance to be seen to be challenging a government which is presenting itself, however inaccurately, as a champion of black rights against white privilege."

If Zimbabwe wants an invitation to the Commonwealth heads-of-government meeting, it may not have helped its case by shutting down the country's only independent daily newspaper this week.

The Commonwealth Secretariat has now issued a statement condemning the action and expressing serious concerns about freedom of the press in Zimbabwe.