The end came tersely, almost unceremoniously, save for the final flourish of a victorious general marching into the darkness toward his helicopter, its thumping rotors nearly smothering the few words offered to the world by his vanquished counterpart.
There was no public signing of documents, no congratulatory handshakes, no military pomp. There were only two generals representing opposing forces at war, taking turns stepping into the too-harsh glow of dozens of television cameras in front of a camouflaged hangar on a wind-swept patch of chocolate-colored mud five miles south of the Yugoslav border.
After five days of talks that fluctuated between hopeful and agonizingly frustrating -- including an all-night marathon that broke off for breakfast well after daybreak today and finally ended an hour after a brilliant, rosy sunset tonight -- NATO's representative, British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, stood before a microphone and said simply: "You've been there a very long time, and I've been here quite a long time. However, I have some very good news."
Jackson, who has cultivated the persona of a tough-as-nails commander with craggy looks and a swagger, offered a 14-sentence synopsis of the peace accord. Yugoslav Col. Gen. Svetozar Marjanovic, who unlike the camera-friendly Jackson had made no public statements since the two sides began talking on Saturday, followed with an even more curt pronouncement.
Brief as their remarks were, each man predictably put his own spin on the agreement. Jackson credited the NATO allies with winning peace; Marjanovic praised his president. Jackson stressed the need for NATO to provide security for the return of refugees who had been forced from Kosovo; his counterpart noted the necessity of safety for all Kosovo citizens -- by implication, Serbs as well as ethnic Albanians -- using United Nations, not NATO troops.
Beyond the cameras, their audience was the world. Here, their audience was clusters of French soldiers and a mob of reporters who, after camping at the remote post for days, resembled participants in an international tailgate party, complete with plastic lawn chairs, six-packs of beer and carry-out food. And less than 20 miles away, in teeming refugee camps, thousands of ethnic Albanians awaited word that they could go home.
The aim of the sessions was to give military officials from the two countries a chance to deal with each other face to face for the first time since the war began, and to work out the details of Yugoslav troop withdrawal from Kosovo and deployment of a peacekeeping force so that no shot would be fired. In short, to achieve a bloodless end to a remote-control bombing campaign by high-flying NATO aircraft against ground forces that lacked an effective military response.
The officers on each side appeared in similar dress: battle camouflage, with sporty berets -- red for the British, black for the Yugoslavs. The Yugoslav delegation also strived to keep up appearances by coming and going in a fleet of half a dozen or so cars that always included at least one spotless Mercedes-Benz.
But the setting for the peace talks -- on a NATO helicopter base in a country whose leaders are hostile to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- evoked the inequities of power. Dispersed throughout the base were heavily armed French soldiers. A dozen or so helicopters sat within view, and heavy engineering equipment, ideal for breaching road obstructions, was surrounded by earthen berms.
Whenever Jackson needed to communicate with his NATO superiors, he had only to summon his communications officer. Each time members of the Yugoslav delegation wanted to communicate with Belgrade, they had to drive off the base and back across the border. Even on home turf, they were nervous about NATO eavesdropping and often drove miles out of their way in an attempt to elude detection, NATO officials said.
The fact that members of the top echelon of Yugoslav military and political leadership did not attend -- a circumstance provoked by the recent indictments of five top officials on war crimes charges related to the Kosovo conflict -- initially looked as though it would handicap the negotiations. But eventually the Yugoslavs appeared to turn this to their advantage, using the need for frequent consultations as an excuse to prolong the talks and gain more time for military activities in the field.
The talks nearly derailed several times for reasons that remain hard to discern, according to NATO officials. Either Belgrade simply was not ready for a cease-fire or the alliance had failed to pay sufficient attention to the fact that form matters even more than substance to a government that is cornered and also at the center of the world's attention.
Tonight, with television networks from around the globe turning their cameras on the two men, both alluded to the frustrations.
"It has not been easy going," admitted Jackson.
"The negotiations were very difficult," Marjanovic said. But, with the engines of Jackson's helicopter revving, the words of the Yugoslav general were almost imperceptible.
CAPTION: Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson addresses media after he signed agreement on Yugoslav troop withdrawal.
CAPTION: A French soldier guards a tent used in peace talks in Kumanovo, Macedonia, after a full night of meetings between NATO and Yugoslav officials.