Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng has boarded a plane bound for the United States, closing a nearly month-long diplomatic tussle that had tested US-China relations.
Chen, 40, his wife and their two children were on United Airlines Flight 88, which took off late on Saturday afternoon from Beijing's airport. The flight is scheduled to arrive in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday evening.
"We can confirm that Chen Guangcheng, his wife and two children have departed China and are en route to the United
States so he can pursue studies at an American university," US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
"We are looking forward to his arrival in the United States later today. We also express our appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr Chen's desire to study in the US. and pursue his goals."
Chen, a blind self-taught lawyer and activist, had been at the Beijing hospital since he left the US embassy in the Chinese capital, where he had sought refuge for several days.
Chen and his family were driven up to the plane in a vehicle resembling a minibus, the Associated Press reported.
He could be seen being pushed in a wheelchair on the tarmac and then onto an elevator that took them up to a sky bridge that was connected to the plane, the news agency said.
Al Jazeera's Rob McBride, reporting from Hong Kong, said Chen had been at the Beijing international airport for much of the day on Saturday, after leaving the hospital where he was staying.
Allowed to leave
"He left hospital without any official confirmation [from the Cinese authorities] one way or the other," McBride said.
"He left hospital at lunch time and has been at the airport for much of the afternoon, we assume going through various formalities, not least having passports issued for himself and his family, as well as exit visas."
Earlier on Saturday, Chen told the AFP news agency by telephone: "I'm at the airport ... I don't know when I will be leaving. I think I'm going to New York".
China allowed Chen to leave the hospital to go to the US, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group, ChinaAid, said in a statement earlier on Saturday.
Chen and his family "were informed to pack up and get ready to leave China" for the United States on Saturday, the group said. It said Chen had informed ChinaAid's president Bob Fu of the developments.
Our correspondent said there had been rumours and media speculation that Saturday would be the day of Chen's departure.
His dramatic escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent refuge in the US embassy
caused huge embarrassment for China, and led to a serious diplomatic rift between the two countries while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing.
Chen had been in touch with Chinese officials on Wednesday, who told him they planned to give him a passport within 15 days.
He is one of China's best-known dissidents, having won plaudits for exposing rights abuses including forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China's "one-child" family planning policy.
In 2006, Chen was sentenced to more than four years in jail on charges - vehemently denied by his wife and lawyers - that he incited a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
He was formally released in 2010 but remained under house arrest in his home village in northeastern Shandong province.
The US embassy had earlier thought it had stuck a deal to allow Chen to stay in China without retribution, but that fell
apart as Chen grew worried about his family's safety.
He changed his mind about staying in China and asked to travel to the US.
Human rights are a major factor in relations between China and the US, even though the US needs China's help on issues such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan and the fragile global economy.