In his first public statement since the Commonwealth Summit in Abuja, Nigeria, South African President Thabo Mbeki said Zimbabwe's problems are still about land and that forces in and outside that country are trying to use human rights as a tool to overthrow its legitimately elected government.

The South African president has been publicly silent since returning from the Commonwealth heads of state meeting earlier this week. But in his weekly letter on the African National Congress's website, Mr. Mbeki hit out at Zimbabwe's African critics, saying they had turned its freedom fighters into repugnant enemies of democracy and its oppressors into liberators.

Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth was extended this week, prompting President Robert Mugabe's government to withdraw the country from the organization.

The Southern African Development Community and some African leaders have protested the decision, calling the process through which it was made undemocratic.

Laying out his version of the history of the Zimbabwe crisis and the Commonwealth's involvement there, Mr. Mbeki said the summit had ignored the central issue in Zimbabwe, which was land. He said the question of Zimbabwe's land problem had disappeared from public discourse, except when it related to the plight of white farmers, which western nations saw as their kith and kin.

Mr. Mbeki also dismissed critics of Zimbabwe's government who lobbied at the Abuja summit, saying they fed false reports to the media and engaged in spin. The human rights issue, he said, was being used as a tool to distract attention from the real issue of land and to justify regime change in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean President Mugabe was not invited to the Abuja meeting, but the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and Zimbabwean civil society representatives attended to lobby for Zimbabwe's continued suspension from the organization.

Mr. Mbeki's previous statements about the Zimbabwe issue have criticized the west and the country's opposition, but in this letter the president reserved his sharpest barbs for Africans who supported Zimbabwe's continued suspension.

In Abuja, a split emerged among African nations on the Zimbabwe issue, with southern African nations led by South Africa pushing hard for the country's readmission to the Commonwealth.