China's foreign ministry said Friday that Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist at the centre of a major row over human rights, can apply to study abroad.

Chen escaped from house arrest in eastern China last month and sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, prompting China to demand a US apology for "interference" in its affairs. He has since said he wants to leave China.

"Chen Guangcheng is currently receiving treatment in hospital," said foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin in a statement.

"If he wants to study abroad, as a Chinese citizen, he can apply through normal channels in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen."

The comment came as the United States held new talks with Chen to try to resolve a diplomatic row over his next move, according to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A US embassy official spoke to the blind activist by telephone at aBeijing hospital and also met his wife, the official said. US Ambassador Gary Locke earlier said that the embassy had two conversations with Chen on Thursday.

He later said that he hoped to go to the United States, leaving US officials scrambling to find a new solution.

The crisis came just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner visited Beijing for annual talks.

Several US lawmakers and rights activists have voiced outrage over US diplomats' willingness to accept China's guarantees on security, but officials insist that he never sought asylum during his time in the embassy.

Chinese police have detained supporters of Chen at the hospital, and have beaten two of them, the backers and their relatives said Friday.

Crowds of friends and well-wishers have gathered outside the central Beijing hospital.

The wife of one, rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, told AFP he was detained at the hospital Thursday evening by Chinese police who beat him and warned him against supporting Chen, before releasing him early Friday.