A blind Chinese legal activist fled house arrest in his rural village and made it Friday to a secret location in Beijing, setting off a frantic police search for him and those who helped him, activists said.
U.S. officials would not comment on unconfirmed reports that Chen Guangcheng had sought protection at the U.S. Embassy -- a delicate prospect as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top U.S. officials visit China next week for the latest round of the two powers' Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Activists said Chen slipped away from his heavily guarded home on Sunday night, was driven away by activists and then transferred to others who brought him to Beijing.
He recorded a video addressed to Premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of him and his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
Activist Hu Jia met with Chen after his escape and said the people with Chen later called him. "They said, 'He is in a 100 percent safe place,' " Hu said. "If they say that, I know where that place is. There's only one 100 percent place in China, and that's the U.S. Embassy."
Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted a photo Friday on Twitter of Chen and Hu together. Chen is wearing the same clothes he wore in the video.
Chen's escape could boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising arrests and other harassment over the past year.
But Chen's flight unleashed a police crackdown on his relatives and the people who helped him flee, activists said.
"I am now free. But my worries have not ended yet," Chen said in the video. "My escape might ignite a violent revenge against my family."
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home.
He was admired by rights activists who -- led by blogger He Peirong -- last year campaigned to publicize his case and encourage citizens to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but as with many others he was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.
The escape threatens more negative publicity for the authoritarian government already dealing with the fallout from the toppling of a former powerful politician.