HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - Inside a dilapidated house in China's rural Shandong province, Chen Guangcheng feigned illness, lying on his bed for extended periods so that his guards would be lulled into complacency, activists said. Then he made his move, scaled a wall and slipped out to freedom.
It was a disciplined deception that allowed the blind Chinese activist to outwit his guards in an escape from house arrest that now threatens diplomatic ties between China and the United States, human rights campaigners involved in the getaway said.
He had earlier considered burrowing his way out but gave up on the idea. When he was left unattended for a short period on April 21, the lanky Chen slipped out of the house in darkness and scaled the two-meter (yard) wall.
"He did try to dig a tunnel but he scratched that plan," said Bob Fu, the president of Texas-based religious and human rights group, ChinaAid. "The successful plan happened when he was able to pretend he was lying on his bed."
Fu said omnipresent guards at the house failed to discover Chen's escape until Thursday, five days after his escape.
Beijing dissident Hu Jia said on Saturday that Chen had also remained indoors for long periods so the people watching him became accustomed to not seeing him for a few days.
Hu was detained by police but released after a day, though at least one other activist who is part of Chen's network of activist supporters remains missing, presumed detained.
Chen's wife, child and mother remained behind in Shandong, and are out of contact.
Dissidents and rights groups say Chen, who has campaigned against forced abortions and sterilization of women under China's birth control policies, is now under U.S. protection in Beijing after fellow activists helped him evade recapture and travel more than 500 km (300 miles) to the capital last week.
A foreign diplomat said on Sunday he was at the U.S. Embassy, but did not elaborate.
"After he arrived, I met him and we hugged and called each other brothers," Hu told Reuters on Sunday after being released by police. "We chatted for an hour and then decided Guangcheng should go to the safest place in China, which is the U.S. Embassy."
Hu said he did not go to the embassy, and does not know exactly what happened when Chen got there, though he said there was diplomatic assistance.
"Guangcheng does not want asylum, but he wants Premier Wen to probe the persecution of him and his family over the past seven years," Hu added.
"Dear Premier Wen, I have finally escaped," Chen announced in a videotaped message from an undisclosed location to China's second ranked leader, Premier Wen Jiabao, released on Friday.
In his video message, Chen said that he had been under continual surveillance at his home and in the surrounding streets.
"As far as I can tell, given that I can't see, there were about 90 to 100 police, Party and government officials," he said.
The United States and China have declined to comment on the activist's whereabouts but his escape appears set to overshadow a high-level diplomatic meeting between the two sides this week.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the two-day talks in Beijing from Thursday.
Hong Kong television news broadcast footage on Saturday of the home in Dongshigu village where Chen was held for 19 months. It shows a drab, run-down dwelling with corn cobs clustered under the eaves and an untidy courtyard.
The yard appeared enclosed with a high wall, a feature of homes typical of the rural areas of northern China. Outside the Chen home is a dusty, quiet village of one-story brick and concrete houses surrounded by farmland.
Chen was jailed for four years in August 2006 after a Shandong court found him guilty of damaging public property, organizing a mob to disrupt traffic and pressuring the government, charges that critics said had been concocted to punish him for his exposure of late-term abortions in his hometown.
Chen, who was under house arrest after his release from prison in September 2010, managed to climb the wall without assistance, according to fellow activists and human rights groups.
However, he injured his foot jumping to the ground the other side.
"He hurt himself physically during the escape," said ChinaAid's Fu, citing information from the activists who helped Chen escape. "He has marks all over him."
Fu added that Chen was determined to escape and had managed to cross a river in his getaway before meeting friends who had driven him in a car to Beijing.
Some activists in China closely associated with the escape have kept details close.
In an interview on Friday, Chen's long-time friend and fellow activist He Peirong refused to provide a detailed account of his breakout.
"I can't give you the details," she said. "Too many people would get hurt."
She did confirm that she had helped Chen once he was free.
"On escaping the village, he contacted me and I picked him up," she said. "He knew my number. We had talked by telephone last July."
He Peirong was one of the people who took turns driving up to Beijing, activist Hu said, a three-day trip undertaken to avoid having to take public transport which could have attracted attention.
She was detained on Friday, Fu added.
Once Chen arrived in Beijing, he kept moving to stay ahead of the authorities, activists said.
"We did a lot of assessing the situation and frequently moved his hiding place in Beijing," said Hu.
In 2007, while Chen was in jail, his wife, Yuan Weijing, also escaped authorities in Linyi where she was under police surveillance and made her way to Beijing to campaign for her husband's release.
In an interview at the time with Reuters, Yuan said she had climbed three walls to evade the watchers before making the 10-hour bus trip to the capital. Activists now worry about her safety and say she is under house arrest. Phone calls to Yuan's number ring off a recording: "This is an empty number."
This time, Chen is in Beijing, and his wife, their son and his mother remain in Shandong, inside the security cordon and out of touch.
"There is no up-to-date news about his wife and child. They are still under house arrest. We're very worried," said Hu's wife and fellow activist, Zeng Jinyan.
"We want not only the United States, but the whole world, to work as hard as possible to help Chen Guangcheng, to guarantee his safety. We have already gone down all the legal avenues possible in China, but he and his family are still being unjustly treated, cruelly treated. His wife was so horribly beaten, and none of the attackers has been held to account."
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong, Benjamin Kang Lim, Terril Yue Jones and Maxim Duncan in Beijing, Editing by Brian Rhoads and Nick Macfie