Only 12 hours earlier, a unanimous resolution of the United Nations Security Council had demanded an immediate ceasefire and the start of political negotiations between Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia, and the Albanian majority population in Kosovo. But apparently oblivious to the threats, the Serbian forces were closing in on the last stronghold of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
By midday, Serbian troops had captured a main road through the central Drenica region of Kosovo, splitting KLA forces in two and cutting off more than a dozen villages. Eyewitnesses spoke of jets roaring overhead, as columns of civilian refugees streamed southward in the direction of Albania and Macedonia.
Serb police, meanwhile, were reported to have arrested at least 200 Albanian men, whom they were holding at a factory in the area. Capturing the despair of the moment, one KLA fighter declared there was no escape from the Serbs all around. "We can't leave. We only live if we win, or if Nato threatens Milosevic to stop."
But last night Nato, though readying a potential strike force, had still not taken a final decision to intervene. Instead, alliance defence ministers meeting in Vilamoura, Portugal, delivered an "activation warning" that takes the 16-nation group closer than ever to military action, by lining up a multinational force to launch strikes at Yugoslav and Serb installations.
The driving pressure this time is coming from the Americans. Walter Slocombe, US Under-Secretary for Defense, told reporters that once Nato moved in, it would hit pre- selected military targets with "very, very effective and very, very strong blows", consisting almost certainly of an initial wave of cruise missile attacks, to be followed if necessary by a steadily escalating aerial bombardment to cripple Serb supply and communication lines.
But neither the latest Nato sabre-rattling nor the vote in New York seems to be greatly perturbing Mr Milosevic, who has seen off many a similar Western threat over the past few months.
As the crackdown continued fiercer than ever, Zivadin Jovanovic, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, described the UN resolution as "groundless and counter-productive". Totally ignoring the operations of his own army, he declared that force was not the way to solve the crisis.
In Belgrade, Mr Milosevic's ruling Socialist party issued a statement in which it "expressed bitterness" over the "continuing policies of double standards and pressure on our country, which gives direct and indirect support to Albanian separatists and terrorists".
The party praised the Serb security forces fighting the Albanians in Kosovo for what it called their "honourable and professional" work.
Despite explicit Russian objections and unspoken reservations among several alliance partners, Nato this time seems to have little choice but to act if Belgrade does not call a halt to the Kosovo offensive.
Not only would its own credibility be reduced to zero if its words were again revealed as empty bluster; it would probably have missed the final chance of averting a huge humanitarian disaster involving up to 300,000 refugees - 50,000 of them without shelter as the hard Balkan winter approaches.
In the eyes of the Albanian population it is already too late. "Half of Kosovo is already destroyed and burning," said an aide to the Kosovo Albanian political leader, Ibrahim Rugova. "By the time Nato gets round to doing anything, he'll [Mr Milosevic] have time to destroy the other half too."Reuse content