White farmers in Zimbabwe are facing a deadline of midnight local time (2200 UTC) to get off their farms for good. But the country's High Court has given some of them a last-minute reprieve.

The High Court ruled that the government cannot seize mortgaged farms without notifying the bank or lending agency that holds the mortgage. The ruling was made Wednesday but only made public Thursday.

The court said the government could not seize the land belonging to white farmer Andrew Kockett because it has not informed the local bank which holds Mr. Kockett's mortgage.

The ruling came as Mr. Kockett and nearly 3,000 other farmers faced a looming deadline to get off their land.

In May, President Robert Mugabe passed a law giving them 90 days to shut down their operations and leave their farms. The deadline has arrived and farmers now face a fine or a two-year prison sentence if they fail to comply.

It is not clear how many of those farms are mortgaged and would be affected by the new court ruling. Initial reports indicate it is likely to be a significant number of them.

The government can serve new notices of acquisition on mortgaged farms, but the court decision should give those farmers a grace period before they actually have to leave their land.

Many farmers say they plan to leave anyway because they are afraid they will be harmed by the armed militants who are occupying their land, led by veterans of Zimbabwe's war for independence.

The forced evictions are part of Zimbabwe's fast-track land reform program aimed at ending the inequitable land distribution left over from the colonial era. Whites make up less than one percent of the population but the government says they own 70 percent of the best farmland. The government wants to redistribute essentially all white-owned farms in the country to landless blacks.

The process has been controversial from the start. Courts have repeatedly ordered the government to end the violent farm occupations and restore law and order to the land-reform program. But the government has largely ignored those earlier court decisions.

The eviction of the white farmers comes as Zimbabwe is facing one of the most serious food shortages in recent memory. Two years of drought and floods have hurt food production throughout southern Africa. But aid agencies believe Zimbabwe's land crisis has contributed to the situation in that country, which they say is approaching famine.