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Blind Chinese activist flying to US

A blind Chinese activist has been hurriedly taken from a hospital and boarded a plane that took off for the United States, closing a nearly month-long diplomatic tussle that had tested US-China relations.

Chen Guangcheng, his wife and their two children were on United Airlines Flight 88, which took off from the Beijing airport. The flight is scheduled to arrive in Newark, New Jersey, later.

"Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," Mr Chen said, sounding hurried but calm. To his supporters and others in the activist community, Mr Chen expressed gratitude and indicated that he hoped to return.

"I am requesting a leave of absence, and I hope that they will understand," he said.

Mr Chen and his family's departure to the United States marks the conclusion of nearly a month of uncertainty and years of mistreatment by local authorities for the self-taught legal activist who made a daring escape from house arrest in his village last month.

His supporters welcomed his departure. "I think this is great progress. We are happy about it," said US-based rights activist Bob Fu. "It's a victory for freedom fighters."

Mr Chen sought the protection of US diplomats at the American Embassy in Beijing, triggering a diplomatic stand-off days ahead of unrelated high-level talks on global hotspots and economic imbalances led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After days of negotiations, the sides announced an agreement in which he and his family would be allowed to travel to the United States for him to study.

The departure of Mr Chen, his wife and two children seemed hastily arranged and entirely orchestrated by Chinese and American officials with no apparent input from the activist.

Mr Chen said he was informed at the hospital just before noon to pack his bags and get ready to leave. Officials did not give him and his family passports or inform them of their flight details until after they got to the airport.

Seeming ambivalent, Mr Chen said that he was "not happy" about leaving and that he had a lot on his mind, including worries about retaliation against his extended family back home.

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