Chen Guangcheng, the fugitive Chinese activist who pulled off a daring escape from house arrest, was likely holed up in the US embassy in Beijing, according to a top dissident and close friend.
If true, the embassy's acceptance of the blind lawyer could prove a major diplomatic irritant just as China and the United States are preparing for wide-ranging annual talks next week on their often testy relationship.
With Washington refusing to comment on his whereabouts, outspoken government critic Hu Jia, who is close to Chen, told AFP that those involved in spiriting Chen to safety had chosen a "100 percent safe" location.
"What location could be more safe than the US embassy?" said Hu, who said he had met Chen since his audacious flight from under the noses of dozens of guards. "I believe he is safe at the embassy."
Hu declined to offer further details backing that belief in order to protect those involved in helping Chen, a self-taught lawyer lauded for his work in exposing abuses under China's one-child policy.
Chen, 40, escaped from house arrest in the eastern province of Shandong last Sunday, and subsequently recorded a alleging he had been viciously beaten and voicing concern for his wife and son.
"They (authorities) could enact crazed revenge on them because of my departure. This revenge could be completely unrestrained," he said in the video, posted online on Friday.
The United States has expressed concern about Chen, but refused any comment on his whereabouts, underscoring the huge sensitivity of the issue.
China's state-controlled media has made no mention of Chen's escape, while Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai refused to respond to questions about his whereabouts at a media briefing on the upcoming US-China talks on Saturday.
"It is a very hot potato for both sides, if true. It is very, very sensitive politically," said Zhu Feng, an expert on China's foreign relations at Peking University.
"We don't know for sure if he is there, but it has been very interesting that embassy officials have given no clarity on whether he is there or not.
"Of course, if it is true, both sides must be in close contact on this issue. No one wants to see it played out in a reckless way."
Chen's flight came two months after Wang Lijun, former right-hand man of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, went to the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu and reportedly sought US asylum.
He was turned down, but the incident was embarrassing for Beijing and provoked a major political crisis, with just months to go before a key handover of power in China.
The last Chinese dissident known to have been granted refuge at the US embassy was Fang Lizhi, a key figure in the pro-democracy movement who spent a year under US protection after publicly supporting the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
He was forced into exile in 1990 and died in the United States earlier this month.
Bob Fu, who fled China in 1996 and is in close contact with Chen, said the activist had expressed reluctance to leave the country.
Chen has won worldwide acclaim for exposing forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China's policy restricting the size of most families, and for using his legal knowledge to help people battle a range of other perceived injustices.
Chen and his family were put under round-the-clock house arrest after he completed a four-year jail sentence in September 2010. He has said he was being punished for defiantly continuing to speak out.
Chen's hometown of Dongshigu became notorious as a no-go zone for foreign media and other visitors, who were typically chased away and often assaulted by local guards apparently employed by officials.
Fu said Chen's escape came to light in the early hours of Friday morning, when government officials went to Dongshigu to search his house and that of his elder brother Chen Guangfu.
Human rights groups say Chen Guangfu and his son Chen Kegui have been taken into police custody after a violent confrontation early Friday.
The local government said in a brief statement late Friday that Chen Kegui would be dealt with "according to the law".
He Peirong, one of Chen's supporters who helped transport him to a safe location, was arrested at her home in the eastern city of Nanjing on Friday, Fu said.
Source: AFP Global Edition