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BEIJING (Reuters) - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng appealed to President Barack Obama to help him escape China with his family, telling journalists he feared for his life just hours after leaving the U.S. Embassy under a deal that Washington had hoped would defuse the crisis with Beijing.
Chen left the embassy on Wednesday after securing guarantees that, according to U.S. officials, would have allowed him to relocate within the country in safety with his family and pursue his studies. He had been holed up in the embassy for six days after escaping house arrest last month.
The deal was negotiated between the United States and China in the days before a visit to Beijing by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. officials had touted it as a sign of the cooperative U.S.-China partnership.
But Chinese authorities took a tougher tone in the hours after Chen left the embassy, immediately criticizing what they called U.S. meddling and demanding an apology for the way U.S. diplomats handled the case.
Human rights groups warned the deal entailed some risk that the Chinese authorities might not live up to the guarantees, and Chen appeared to have a change of heart about his chances.
"I would like to say to President Obama, please do everything you can to get our family out," Chen told CNN in a phone interview, parts of which were broadcast on the network.
Within hours of his release to a Beijing hospital and being reunited with his family, Chen gave interviews saying he feared for his life after he learned that his wife had been bound and beaten. CNN reporter Stan Grant said he spoke to Chen for 15 to 20 minutes in the early hours of Thursday and the activist felt "let down" by the United States.
Grant said Chen told him that while he was at the U.S. Embassy he was not given the full story. He had since spoken to his wife who told him she was mistreated by Chinese authorities and he now feared for his life.
Congressman Chris Smith, chair of a congressional panel on China and a longtime supporter of Chen's cause, said he was told by U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing early Wednesday that Chen wanted to call him, but Smith never received a call.
Smith told Reuters that when he read U.S. media reports of Chen saying "convey to Chris Smith, 'Help my family and I leave safely,' the alarms and red flags went up."
Chen's friend Teng Biao tweeted that he had held six phone conversations with Chen in the hospital on Wednesday night.
"Guangcheng's thinking at the outset was definitely that he wanted to stay in China, but now it's very possible that his thinking has changed," Teng posted on Twitter.
"I could clearly feel the change in his thinking. Regardless of whether he left the embassy due to threat or for another reason, now he clearly feels unsafe," wrote Teng.
In a Chinese-language transcript Teng posted online of their phone calls, Teng quoted Chen as saying, "U.S. Embassy staff promised they would continue to stay with me, but they have already left. It's just us here now."
Chen is a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions under China's 'one child' policy. He escaped 19 months of house arrest, during which he and his family faced beatings and threats, in rural Shandong province on April 22.
Earlier, U.S. officials said Chen left the embassy of his own free will because he wanted to be reunited with his wife and children. U.S. officials said that Chen wanted to remain in China and that he never asked for asylum.
Chen's dramatic escape from house arrest last week and his flight to the U.S. Embassy have made him a symbol of resistance to China's shackles on dissent, and the deal struck by Beijing and Washington would have kept him an international test case of how tight or loose those restrictions remain.
Now, however, his apparent change of heart throws not only his own future into doubt but also raises questions about the wider U.S.-China relationship as the U.S. secretaries of state and treasury arrived in Beijing for security and economic talks.
It could also prove politically costly for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has already been accused of being soft on China by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and who could now face further criticism over Chen's case.
What initially appeared to be a foreign policy success for the Obama administration -- defusing a problem that could have harmed ties between the world's two largest economies -- could quickly turn into a liability.
Clinton, who had arrived in Beijing for long-scheduled, high-level economic and security talks hours before Chen's departure from the U.S. Embassy, earlier hailed the agreement.
"I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng's stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values," Clinton said.
"(Chen) has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment. Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task. The United States government and the American people are committed to remaining engaged with Mr. Chen and his family in the days, weeks and years ahead."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry's first public reaction to Chen's was anger. "The U.S. method was interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and this is totally unacceptable to China. China demands that the United States apologies over this, thoroughly investigate this incident, punish those who are responsible, and give assurances that such incidents will not recur," ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement.
Bob Fu, the president of Texas-based religious and human rights group, ChinaAid, said Chen agreed to leave the embassy only because "serious threats to his immediate family members were made by Chinese government" if he refused.
Fu of ChinaAid, which has been a key source of information about Chen since his escape, said the group was very concerned about reports that Chen's departure from the embassy was involuntary. "Relevant reports show unfortunately the U.S. side 'has abandoned Mr Chen,'" Fu said in a statement.
U.S. officials denied that they had discussed any threats to Chen's family, saying Chinese officials had not discussed any threats with them, and said they had acted to secure his wish to remain in China and continue his work.
"U.S. interlocutors did make clear that if Chen elected to stay in the Embassy, Chinese officials had indicated to us that his family would be returned to Shandong, and they would lose their opportunity to negotiate for reunification," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were three choices when Chen came to the embassy: seeking a U.S. visa and subsequently applying for asylum, negotiating through the United States to stay in China or staying at the U.S. mission in Beijing indefinitely.
A U.S. official earlier said that Chen had asked to make a call to Clinton from the car while he was being driven to a Beijing hospital, escorted by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. The official quoted Chen as telling Clinton: "I want to kiss you."
Even that detail later came under question, as one of Chen's associates denied he said this. The State Department, however, said three U.S. officials heard Chen make the comment in English.
The drama over Chen threatens to overshadow this week's U.S.-China talks.
Quite apart from the importance of developing ties between the world's two largest economies, both governments are aware of the impact the case could have on their domestic politics.
Later this year, U.S. President Barack Obama will seek a second term, knowing that his Republican foes are already accusing him of being too soft on China. They may now criticize him for not doing enough to ensure the activist's safety.
Also later this year, China's ruling Communist Party will bring in a new set of leaders, a normally well choreographed process that has been wrong-footed by a scandal enveloping senior leader Bo Xilai. That too was triggered after a senior Bo aide sought refuge in a U.S. diplomatic mission.
Some analysts said that issue appears to have divided the top leadership and may have upset hardliners who want to keep a firm lid on anything they see as undermining party rule.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Don Durfee, Lucy Hornby and Michael Martina in Beijing; Brian Rhoads, James Pomfret and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; and Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert in Washington.; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher, Claudia Parsons and Paul Eckert; Editing by Cynthia Osterman