It had lasted almost 16 years. But then - in a dawn raid on a nondescript house in northern Serbia - one of the world's most wanted men was finally captured.
Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander indicted in 1995 by the UN War Crimes Tribunal, was seized by the Serbian security services in the town of Lazarevo.
Rumours had begun to circulate late on Thursday morning among journalists. And then news that the Serbian President, Boris Tadic, had called an emergency lunchtime press conference.
The signs were all there that Gen Mladic had indeed been caught.
President Tadic entered a packed hall and strode confidently to a central lectern.
"On behalf of the Republic of Serbia, I can announce that Ratko Mladic has been arrested," he told assembled journalists.
It was a statement that some thought might never come. The president added that he believed this would now close a chapter in Serbia's history and move towards reconciliation for the whole region.
He remained tightlipped about the particulars of the arrest, saying that the security services would in the coming days release more information.
As the day wore on, Gen Mladic appeared before a court in Belgrade to begin extradition proceedings. But he was deemed too physically and psychologically frail for the hearing to continue and so it was adjourned until Friday.
His lawyer has already indicated that Gen Mladic will not recognise the legitimacy of the UN court once he's transferred there to stand trial.
Protesters in Belgrade
This is a hugely important moment for Serbia and for the Western Balkans as a whole, as it tries to lay the legacy of the 1990s Balkan wars to rest.
The capture of Ratko Mladic was a precondition for Serbia to reach its goal of European Union membership.
But it has also come at an important time: Brussels is currently deciding whether to bring Serbia one step further towards accession talks by granting it "candidate status" later this year; the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, spent Thursday in Belgrade discussing this.
And so, I asked President Tadic, was it merely a coincidence that Gen Mladic was arrested now?
"Serbia has never calculated when it would capture Ratko Mladic," Mr Tadic replied. "This is the result of a concerted effort by the national security council over the last three years - we were determined to arrest him at all times."
But attention will surely now shift to how Gen Mladic managed to evade the authorities for so long and who protected him. Those involved in the support network will also face justice, the president warned.
As evening fell in Belgrade, some protesters gathered in the central square - and in other parts of Serbia too.
Nationalists still see Ratko Mladic as a Serb hero and believe the UN Tribunal in the Hague has an anti-Serb bias.
But there is another large part of the Serbian population who will breathe a great sigh of relief at this extraordinary day.
They are tired of Serbia's turbulent past and say that the country has for too long been held hostage by one man.
The new generation here is keen to leave the 1990s behind to show that Serbia is a changed place and one now ready to progress towards EU membership.
For them, their only disappointment will be that the arrest of Ratko Mladic has been so long coming.