Thousands of Zimbabwe's white commercial farmers are facing a deadline to leave their homesteads Thursday or face prosecution and the possibility of jail if they stay on. Many of Zimbabwe's farmers have already left or are abandoning their farms ahead of the deadline, while others are hoping for a last minute reprieve.

Vice President Joseph Msika made a friendly speech to farmers Wednesday at the annual general meeting of the mainly white Commercial Farmers' Union.

He said he was standing in for President Robert Mugabe who is traveling in Asia.

Mr. Msika assured white farmers there was room for them in Zimbabwe, and said any of them who wanted to continue farming should apply to the government.

He made no concessions however, to the 3,000 farmers who have already been sent final notices to quit their farms.

This notice, called a Section 8, gave farmers a 45-day grace period to wind up their farming operations, and a further 45 days to leave their homesteads. That grace period expires at midnight on Thursday.

The law said that if they remain in their homesteads beyond that time they can be prosecuted and face up to two years in jail.

Hundreds of farmers have already abandoned their farms. Many more are presently moving into the towns. But there are still others who are hoping for a reprieve at the 11th hour that will permit them to resume farming.

Some here believe the appearance of Vice President Msika at the farmers union meeting shows that relations between the government and the white farmers may be warming after more than two years of hostility.

But, so far, Mr. Msika has provided no alternative to the eviction notices.

In the last week, several government ministers have warned white farmers that the full force of the law will be used against them if they defy the eviction notices.

The government embarked on its land reform program 29 months ago. It has passed laws to seize more than 95 percent of white-owned land.

In the last two years agricultural production has plummeted and hundreds of the best-equipped farms have been taken over by ruling party officials and members of the security forces.