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Blind Chinese activist Chen set to leave for US

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and his family are due to leave Beijing on Saturday for the United States, NBC News has learned.

Chen, a 40-year-old legal activist, escaped from house arrest in northeastern China last month and fled 300 miles to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy.

He had been restricted to his home in the village of Linyi, Shandong province, since September 2010 – when he was released from prison – after campaigning against forced abortions.

After staying in the embassy for several days, he said he had received assurances from the Chinese authorities and left to get treatment at a hospital in Beijing for injuries he sustained during his escape.

The Chinese government then said he would be able to apply to study abroad and he was offered a university fellowship in the United States.

The departure of Chen, his wife and two children 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.

'Still unclear'
The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment, Reuters said.

"I'm at the airport now. I've already left the hospital. But there are many things that are still unclear," Chen told Reuters by telephone.

 Why did blind activist Chen Guangcheng anger Chinese authorities?

Chen added that his wife and two children were at the airport with him, accompanied by hospital staff. 

However, despite this, he expressed some uncertainty.

"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 told Reuters. "We're waiting to find out what's happening." 

Chen's confinement, his escape and the furor 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. 

Chinese crackdown on dissident's family and friends

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. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for more details.

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