BEIJING (Reuters) - Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist known as one of China's most prominent human rights advocates, has left home detention in the country's east, activists said on Friday, but it is unclear where he is or under what circumstances he left.
Chen, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions, and his family have been restricted to their home since September 2010 in Linyi in Shandong province after he was released from jail.
Their confinement has fanned protests by Chinese sympathizers and criticism from foreign governments and activist groups.
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid, told Reuters Chen had been moved to a place "far from his home" but could not give more details until he received word from Chen.
"He is not dead," Fu said. "He is very far from his home, but he is safe," Fu said in a telephone interview.
Fu said Chen's wife, daughter and mother were still at the family's village home, which was surrounded by authorities after they discovered Chen had disappeared.
"The entire village and government leaders were stunned by the developments, when Chen Guangcheng was not found. So they are surrounding his home and presumably awaiting orders," he said.
Another activist, He Peirong, told Reuters Chen had "escaped" but did not know where he was now.
"He's probably fallen into the hands of the police," she said.
Officials in Shandong province did not comment immediately about Chen's reported escape.
Chen's fate has become a test of wills, pitting the ruling Communist Party's crackdown on dissent against rights activists who have rallied around his cause and that of artist Ai Weiwei.
Chen angered Shandong officials in 2005 by exposing a program of forced abortions as part of China's one-child policy. He was formally released in September 2010 after four years in jail on a charge of "blocking traffic".
Chen and his wife endured a "brutal four-hour beating" by local authorities last July, ChinaAid has said.
Last year, dozens of supporters were blocked from visiting Chen. Many of them were beaten by men in plain clothes.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait)