A leading Chinese activist who escaped from house arrest last weekend is now under US "protection" and Washington and Beijing are in talks over his status, an overseas rights group said Saturday.
Chen Guangcheng, who has been blind since childhood, fled last Sunday with the help of his supporters from under the noses of dozens of guards, and subsequently recorded a video alleging abuses against him and his family.
China Aid, a group run by the former Tiananmen Square democracy activist Bob Fu, said it had learned from a "source close to the Chen Guangcheng situation" that the activist was now "under US protection".
"High-level talks are currently under way between US and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status," said the statement, which also called on the United States to ensure the safety of the activist and his family.
Fu fled China for the United States in 1996, but has been in close contact with Chen and his supporters.
On Friday, he said the activist was in a "100 percent safe" location in Beijing, while the outspoken government critic Hu Jia, who is close to Chen, told AFP the activist is likely holed up in the US embassy.
A decision to grant him refuge could prove a major diplomatic irritant, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner due in Beijing next week for annual talks on their often testy relationship.
The United States has expressed concern about Chen, but refused any comment on his whereabouts, underscoring the huge sensitivity of the issue.
Chen, 40, won worldwide acclaim for exposing forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China's "one child" policy, and for using his legal knowledge to help people battle a range of other perceived injustices.
He and his family were put under round-the-clock house arrest after he completed a four-year jail sentence in September 2010. He has said he was being punished for defiantly continuing to speak out.
China's state-controlled media has made no mention of Chen's escape, while Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai refused to respond to questions about Chen's whereabouts at a media briefing on the upcoming US-China talks on Saturday.
"It is a very hot potato for both sides, if true. It is very, very sensitive politically," said Zhu Feng, an expert on China's foreign relations at Peking University.
"We don't know for sure if he is there, but it has been very interesting that embassy officials have given no clarity on whether he is there or not."
Chen's flight came two months after Wang Lijun, former right-hand man of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, went to the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu and reportedly sought US asylum.
He was turned down, but the incident was highly embarrassing for Beijing and provoked a major political crisis, with just months to go before a key handover of power in China.
The last Chinese dissident known to have been granted refuge at the US embassy was Fang Lizhi, a key figure in the pro-democracy movement who spent a year under US protection after publicly supporting the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
He was forced into exile in 1990 and died in the United States earlier this month.
Fu told AFP Chen had expressed reluctance to leave the country.
"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," he said.
Chen's hometown of Dongshigu became notorious as a no-go zone for foreign media and other visitors, who were typically chased away and often assaulted by local guards apparently employed by officials.
Local people interviewed by AFP on Saturday expressed disbelief that Chen had managed to escape despite the heavy security presence.
"Everyone around here knows about the blind guy. They (authorities) have a lot of local police, traffic police and village security guards watching him," said one resident, who AFP is not naming for his safety.
"Over 60 people watching one blind man day and night. There is no way he can escape."
Fu said Chen's escape came to light in the early hours of Friday morning, when government officials went to Dongshigu to search his house and that of his elder brother Chen Guangfu.
Human rights groups say Chen Guangfu and his son Chen Kegui have been taken into police custody after a violent confrontation early Friday.
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 Friday, Fu said.