About 600 white farmers and their families in Zimbabwe's grain belt fled their farms Sunday, hours before a deadline from the security forces to abandon their homes. The majority of the country's most productive farmers appear to have finally accepted that they have lost the battle to keep their homes and businesses.

From early Sunday morning along the main road which connects Zimbabwe to Zambia, hundreds of moving vans, heavily-loaded farm trucks and pickups were traveling southwards.

The exodus of white commercial farmers who have traditionally produced more than 40 percent of Zimbabwe's export earnings, marked the final phase of a 31 month battle.

It began after President Robert Mugabe lost a referendum in February 2000 for a new constitution. Weeks later, apparently to strengthen his failing political power, he ordered his supporters to invade white-owned farms.

Before the land invasions, there were about 4,000 white commercial farmers. Before Sunday's deadline, about 2,000 still remained in their homesteads. However, less than one-third of the farms were fully productive.

Most of the fleeing farmers are leaving the country of their birth.

Even a week ago, many farmers in this area said they hoped to continue farming. Those who fled were warned by the police and army last Thursday to be off their farms by Sunday at midday.

The orders were also given to some farmers who went to court recently and successfully challenged the nationalization of their properties. Most of those farmers had only one farm. President Mugabe has repeatedly told international audiences, most recently at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, that white farmers with only one farm would be allowed to stay.

The Commercial Farmers Union and the pressure group Justice for Agriculture (JAG) said Sunday they were dismayed by what they called the illegal evictions.

David Rockingham-Gill, regional spokesman for the Farmers Union, said there had been isolated incidents of physical threats against farmers earlier in the day. He said only a handful were barricaded themselves in their homesteads. Several others were evicted by militant government supporters even before the deadline.

He said the farmers were not given enough time to pack up generations of equipment. He said tens of thousands of farm workers had been paid off with terminal benefits in the last few days.

An agricultural analyst said Sunday there would be no more than a few dozen white farmers left on their farms by Christmas.