Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese lawyer who won global acclaim for uncovering rights abuses under China's "one child" policy, has escaped from house arrest, according to his supporters.
Chen had been unable to leave his home in east China since he was released from a four-year jail sentence in September 2010. He has reportedly endured several beatings and is believed to be in poor health.
"He was able to get out of his home on April 22 and his friends were alerted and escorted him to a safer location outside of (his home province of) Shandong," Bob Fu, a US-based activist in close contact with Chen, told AFP.
The claim was supported by a China-based supporter of the lawyer.
Fu -- a former Tiananmen Square democracy activist who fled China in 1996 after being persecuted for his religious beliefs -- was unwilling to describe the circumstances of Chen's escape from Donggushi village for safety reasons.
Fu said he had been in direct communication with the supporters who had escorted Chen to a safe location.
Fu added he had been in contact with the US Congress, State Department, and the US embassy in China "to alert them and seek help for Chen Guangcheng and those who help him and are hiding him".
But he could not confirm rumours that Chen was currently at the US embassy in Beijing, saying that while in hiding, Chen had expressed reluctance to leave the country.
"We asked if he was willing to get out of China. He's very reluctant and he said he wants to fight to the end inside China for his citizen's rights. He wants to lead a normal life as a Chinese citizen," Fu said.
The US embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Fu said Chen's escape came to light in the early hours of Friday morning, when government officials went to Donggushi village to search his house and that of his elder brother Chen Guangfu.
One of Chen's China-based supporters, whose name has been withheld for his safety, told AFP that violence broke out in the village after the arrival of the government officials -- including the governor of a local township.
"Chen Kegui (Chen's nephew) slashed the governor and several other people, and he has already surrendered himself to the local police," he said.
Fu said Chen Guangcheng's wife, mother and child were now holed up in their house, unable to leave and surrounded by police, as were the family of his elder brother, who had been arrested.
He added that He Peirong, one of Chen's supporters who helped transport him to a safe location, was arrested at her home in the eastern city of Nanjing on Thursday.
Chen gained fame for helping people sue officials over a wide variety of injustices, with corrupt officials in government a particular target.
After pursuing law at a blind school during his youth, he armed himself with legal knowledge and began giving free legal advice to villagers, although he has no formal legal qualifications.
He was jailed in 2006 after accusing family-planning officials in Shandong province of forcing at least 7,000 women to be sterilised or to undergo late-term abortions.
That same year, Chen was named by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people for his courage in exposing the abortion and sterilisation abuses.
Reporters and activists who tried to visit Chen during his house arrest have been unable to access his home, and some have even been roughed up by the guards posted at every entrance to his village.
His home incarceration has been particularly severe even in China, where dissidents and lawyers are frequently held under some form of house arrest if they upset authorities or are believed to be a threat.