BEIJING (Reuters) - Blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng said on Saturday he has left a hospital in Beijing, where he has been for the past three weeks since he sought refuge in the U.S. embassy, and was waiting at the airport.
Chen said he believes he will be headed on a flight to the United States, but added he was still uncertain of it.
The departure of Chen and his family would mark the removal of a sticking point in already difficult U.S.-China relations that have been marred by China's handling of human rights. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.
Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent refuge in the U.S. embassy caused huge embarrassment for China, and led to a serious diplomatic rift between the two superpowers while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing.
Chen told Reuters by telephone: "I'm at the airport now. I've already left the hospital. But there are many things that are still unclear."
Chen said that his wife and two children were at the airport with him, accompanied by hospital staff.
"Yes, I might be heading for a flight to the United States, but I haven't been told, and I haven't received our passports, so I'm not sure yet," Chen said. "We're waiting to find out what's happening."
The development came about three weeks after Chen arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital from the U.S. embassy, where he had taken refuge after a dramatic escape from 19 months under house arrest in his home village.
Chen's confinement, his escape and the furore that ensued have made him part of China's dissident folklore: a blind prisoner outfoxing Communist Party controls in an echo of the man who stood down an army tank near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in jail on charges - vehemently denied by his wife and lawyers - that he whipped up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
He was formally released in 2010 but remained under stifling house arrest in his home village in northeastern Shandong province, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plain clothes who kept Chen isolated.
The village of Dongshigu, where Chen's mother and other relatives remain, is still under lockdown.
The U.S. embassy had earlier thought it had stuck a deal to allow Chen to stay in China without retribution, but that fell apart as Chen grew worried about his family's safety. He changed his mind about staying in China and asked to travel to the United States.
Human rights are a major factor in relations between China and the United States, even though the U.S. needs China's help on issues such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan and the fragile global economy.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)