BLIND activist Chen Guangcheng and his family left China on a plane bound for the United States yesterday, ending weeks of uncertainty in a saga that sorely tested China-US relations.
Mr Chen was whisked to Beijing's airport from the hospital where he had been treated after his dramatic escape from house arrest and flight to the US embassy which triggered a diplomatic crisis.
"We can confirm that Chen Guangcheng, his wife and two children have departed China and are en route to the United States so he can pursue studies at an American university," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Mr Chen was given short notice earlier in the day to pack his belongings and leave the hospital where he had been waiting for more than two weeks for permission to depart from China.
"I'm at the airport. I do not have a passport. I don't know when I will be leaving. I think I'm going to New York," he told AFP by telephone.
Once at the airport, Mr Chen told a friend that he had finally received the passports for himself and his family that would enable them to depart.
The United Airlines flight for New York believed to be carrying Chen and his family was originally scheduled for 3:45pm (0745 GMT) but left about a delay of about two hours, according to airport staff.
One of China's best-known activists, Mr Chen won plaudits for investigating rights abuses including forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China's "one-child" family planning policy, but also served a jail term.
Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer and close friend of Mr Chen's, said he had mixed feelings about leaving his home country.
"He seemed to be reluctant to leave and didn't consider it the optimal solution, even though he agreed that it was the best he could do to ensure his personal safety," Mr Jiang told AFP.
Mr Chen, who had been held under house arrest after being released from a four-year jail term in September 2010, fled his home in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 under the noses of plain-clothes security officers.
In a video address to China's Premier Wen Jiabao that was posted online, Mr Chen said he had suffered repeated beatings and expressed serious concerns for his wife and family.
He appeared at the US embassy in Beijing, less than a week before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit China for high-level talks.
Chinese and American diplomats scrambled to find a solution, and reached an initial agreement under which Chen would stay in China under more agreeable conditions.
Mr Chen left the embassy but regretted it almost immediately, telling journalists that he now wanted to go to the United States. China later relented, saying he could apply to go abroad like any other Chinese citizen.
Mr Chen, who has been invited to study law at New York University, was in touch on Wednesday with Chinese officials who told him they planned to give him a passport within 15 days. In the event it came much quicker.
"We are looking forward to his arrival in the United States later today," Ms Nuland said.
"We also express our appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr. Chen's desire to study in the US and pursue his goals."
Li Jinsong, another friend and lawyer, said there was a possibility that Mr Chen's impact would lessen once the self-taught "barefoot lawyer", who was famed for his grassroots work, had left China.
"But he and his family have been through much hardship over the past seven and eight years, and I'm happy that they can go abroad and enjoy a bit of safety and freedom," he said.
In a gripping account of his escape, Chen told AFP that after weeks of preparation to put his guards off the scent, his wife pushed him over a wall built around his small home.
He broke his foot when he landed on the other side, but undeterred he scrambled in pain to a neighbour's pig sty where he hid until nightfall.
After a long and painful journey through fields and over walls, he eventually made his way to the home of a friend - one of several who would help him during his odyssey.
In a live telephone call to a hearing of the US Congress on Tuesday - his second this month - Mr Chen accused Chinese authorities of a pattern of abuse against his extended family.
He said a charge of intentional homicide levelled against his nephew, after he attacked a local official who broke into his family's home after discovering Mr Chen's escape, was motivated by revenge. The official survived the attack.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was "relieved" that Mr Chen had been allowed to leave China, but that it was no time to declare a "mission accomplished".
"The US government and other foreign governments need to redouble their efforts to seek the protection of those relatives, friends and supporters of Chen Guangcheng who remain in China and are vulnerable to unlawful official reprisals merely due to their association with Chen and support for his cause," it said.