The American special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, returns to Belgrade this morning to resume last-ditch talks with President Milosevic, armed with the vital Nato "activation order" authorising military force.
But the order, agreed by Nato ambassadors in Brussels in the early hours of this morning, postpones its execution by 96 hours - allowing time for the deal under discussion between Mr Holbrooke and President Milosevic to be sealed. Although the order allows military force, all the signs were that a diplomatic breakthrough which would avert actual strikes was within the grasp of negotiators. As Nato approved the order, reports from Washington, quoting US officials, suggested that Serbia had already agreed to withdraw some forces from Kosovo and allow in international observers.
Earlier, Mr Holbrooke emerged from a meeting with Nato ambassadors in Brussels confirming that he was returning to Belgrade this morning for a final diplomatic push. He refused to be drawn on the detail of negotiations and dismissed suggestions of "doing a deal" with President Milosevic, stressing the situation remained "extremely serious."
He nevertheless signalled that preparations for an international monitoring mission, possibly with Russian participation, to verify Serb compliance with the conditions attached to a political settlement, were under way. Mr Holbrooke said that the negotiations reminded him of the run-up to Nato's intervention in Bosnia three years ago, but said that the difference this time was that "bombs are not falling".
The Nato order was approved after Mr Holbrooke interrupted his talks in Belgrade to return to Brussels to brief Nato about the emerging peace deal. In return Mr Holbrooke asked for the agreement on the order to strengthen his leverage on President Milosevic.
According to diplomatic sources, the deal emerging in Belgrade would stop well short of the independence being sought by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders. It would give the province temporary autonomy, oblige President Milosevic to withdraw his forces to pre-March levels when the latest Kosovo offensive began, and guarantee unfettered access by aid agencies. Serb compliance would be overseen by an international unarmed monitoring force, around 3,000 strong, disconnected from Nato and overseen by the OSCE, a 52-nation organisation that includes Russia and much of the former Soviet bloc.
Nato's activation order is seen as a critical step because the alliance is, for the first time, authorising military attacks on a sovereign country without an explicit UN mandate. Nato governments hope it will restore the alliance's credibility, badly damaged by months of seemingly empty threats against Serbia.
The activation order puts air- and land-based cruise missiles and an armada of nearly 500 warplanes under the command of the Nato supreme commander, General Wesley Clark. He now has authority to order missile attacks that would cripple Serb air defences and the first phase of a comprehensive air campaign.
By yesterday, the alliance had virtually completed its preparations as a force of 430 aircraft, 260 of them American, took up position at air bases in Italy and Britain and aboard the aircraft carrier Eisenhower, stationed in the Mediterranean. The aerial armada includes six B-52 bombers waiting at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.
At the same time Britain, along with Germany and most allied countries, closed its embassy in Belgrade amid what a Foreign Office spokeswoman called "the growing expectation of military action".
But the moves posed a threat to relations with Moscow. The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, warned that it set a legal precedent that would unleash "international chaos".
There was no official acceptance of the Kosovo deal from the Serb side, but a statement from Mr Milosevic's office last night declared that "necessary conditions exist for a peaceful political solution to the Kosovo problem."Reuse content