BEIJING (Reuters) - A blind legal activist and one of China's most prominent human rights advocates has escaped home detention in the country's east, activists said on Friday, but confusion over his whereabouts has worried supporters.
Chen Guangcheng, a self-schooled legal advocate in ailing health who campaigned against forced abortions, had been restricted to his village home in Linyi in Shandong province since September 2010 when he was released from jail.
His confinement under guard with his family fanned protests by Chinese sympathizers and criticism from foreign governments and activist groups.
Chen's reported escape and the furor it has unleashed could add to the headaches of China's ruling Communist Party, which is striving to ensure stability and authority ahead of a leadership transition later this year.
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based religious and political rights advocacy group ChinaAid, said Chen had moved far away but would not give more details.
"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," he said.
Another activist, He Peirong, told Reuters that Chen had talked with her.
"His spirits are okay, but he is passing blood and is very weak," she said. "His hands won't stop shaking."
She said Chen was worried about his family.
"He is really worried about his wife, child and mother now he has escaped. He is scared the guards will take revenge now he has escaped. The guards have beaten his old mother this year. They broke some of his wife's bones which have yet to heal."
Chen's fate has become a test of wills, pitting a crackdown on dissent against rights activists who have rallied around his cause and that of artist Ai Weiwei.
Officials in Shandong province did not comment immediately on Chen's reported escape.
The news was widely discussed on China's popular Twitter-like service Weibo, with users referring to him as "the blind man" to avoid censorship of his name, reflecting his status as a Chinese cult hero.
"He has escaped from the clutches of the devil," wrote "Brave to speak".
"Never has the fate of single blind man moved the hearts of an entire nation," added "Jing Huili".
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, expressed concern about Chen's health.
"If Chen has successfully escaped, it comes not a moment too soon as there have been reports that Chen has been in extremely poor health due to severe multiple beatings by his captors," it said.
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.
In December, Hollywood actor and "Batman" star Christian Bale was roughed up by security guards while trying to visit Chen. Bale had been in China to promote a movie with Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher who has campaigned for Chen's release, said he believed Chen remained free as of midday on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Nick Macfie)