BEIJING (AP) -- A blind legal activist who is a key figure in China's rights movement escaped the house arrest he had lived under for a year and a half, fleeing to an undisclosed location and angering captors who then turned on his family, rights campaigners said Friday.
Chen Guangcheng slipped out of his usually well-guarded house in Dongshigu village on Sunday, activists in China and overseas said. He Peirong, who has led a campaign for Chen's freedom, said she picked him up and drove him to "a relatively safe place" she would not further describe.
If confirmed, Chen's freedom would be a boost for a persecuted dissident community that has seen repression increase over the past two years. His plight under house arrest has been closely monitored by Western governments and by local activists, who have seen Chen -- a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by a fever in infancy -- as an inspiring, determined fighter for justice.
"His mental state is pretty good. He's alive, but whether he's safe I don't know," He said from her home city of Nanjing. She said she left Chen a few days ago. She declined to discuss details, other than to say he is no longer in his home province of Shandong, southeast of Beijing.
She said state security agents had begun a full-scale search by Thursday. "There's absolutely no guarantee for his safety," she said.
She denied an online report by Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper citing unnamed sources that Chen entered the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Thursday night.
The embassy would not comment and referred queries to the State Department, where a press officer was not on duty overnight. Security outside the embassy appeared normal Friday.
Local Chinese officials could not be reached for comment, the phone lines in Dongshigu having seemingly been disconnected.
Word of Chen's escape apparently angered local officials, who began searching homes in Dongshigu looking for him Thursday, according to He and Bob Fu, an activist based in Texas who runs the China Aid Association. Both had been in contact with members of Chen's family.
They said Zhang Jian, chief of the town that oversees Dongshigu, led others to Chen's brother's home, then climbed over a wall surrounding the house to go after the family.
"Zhang Jian found out Chen was gone. He was furious," He said. "They beat all the family who were at the home."
She said Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, "took a cleaver for self-defense. He said he hacked several people with the cleaver and wounded them."
Fu said Chen Kegui and his father, Chen Guangfu, had been detained by paramilitary police armed with electric shock batons. Troops had surrounded the family compound in Dongshigu and were preventing Chen Kegui's ill 6-year-old son from being taken to hospital, Fu said.
Rumors of a fracas in Chen's village, and that Chen Guangcheng had died, circulated on microblogs overnight.
Chen Guangcheng served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials kept him confined to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so, and turned the village into something of a prison. Surveillance cameras were trained on his house, and checkpoints were set up around the village.
Locals paid to keep outsiders away chased off, scuffled with and sometimes threw stones at foreign reporters, civil rights lawyers and activists, including Hollywood actor Christian Bale.
At times, officials stormed Chen's home and beat him up. One beating that left him unconscious was in apparent retaliation for a video recording, later smuggled out, in which he compared his house arrest to being in "a bigger jail" than the prison where he had been held.
About a year into this confinement, He Peirong, an avid blogger, and other social activists began a campaign to publicize Chen's situation and encourage Chinese to try to break the security cordon. At least 20 people, many of them not known activists, traveled to the village, and dozens more replaced their photos on their personal microblog accounts with pictures of Chen.
Given the high security, Chen's escape seems unlikely without assistance from sympathizers within the village and would mark a breach in the atmosphere of fear officials have maintained.
"Obviously he got some help inside," said Fu, the Texas-based activist.
He added that Chen was not looking to leave China: "He wants to stay and fight."