NEW YORK -- A federal appeals court yesterday paved the way for the return to Zimbabwe of a 9-year-old boy allegedly tortured by his diplomat father.

The court, while reserving decision on the case, ordered by a 2-to-1 vote that Terrence Karamba be transferred from a foster home to the State Department by noon Saturday.

The department has pledged to return him to Zimbabwe.

Lawyers for the Legal Aid Society, which represents the boy, said they were considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Karamba case has become an international tug-of-war. Zimbabwe has accused the United States of kidnapping. The boy's lawyers say Terrence fears for his life. President Reagan said he had been given assurances that no harm would come to the boy if he was returned home. The State Department expelled the boy's father, Floyd Karamba.

In an hour-long hearing on the case, Appeals Court Judge Ellsworth van Graafeiland expressed serious doubts about the welfare of the boy if he was sent back to his native land.

He argued that a lower court should decide whether diplomatic immunity can be waived in this case. The government has argued that if diplomatic immunity is waived in this case, U.S. diplomatic families might suffer in some unfriendly countries.