U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (L) accompanies blind activist  Chen Guangcheng (R) in a car.
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke (L) talks on a mobile phone as he accompanies blind activist Chen Guangcheng (R) in a car, in Beijing, in this May 2, 2012 file photo. Photo by Reuters
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BEIJING - China allowed a blind legal activist, Chen Guangcheng, to leave a hospital in Beijing yesterday and board a plane bound for the United States, a move that could signal the end of a diplomatic standoff between the two countries.

The U.S. State Department said he was en route to the United States, along with his wife and two children.

Chen's escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent stay in the U.S. embassy caused huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic rift while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing.

United Airlines flight UA 88 departed Beijing yesterday around 5.50 p.m. (11:50 local Israeli time ), with police officers and plainclothes officers following passengers down the mobile corridor leading to the plane's door.

Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said "getting Chen Guangcheng and his family on a plane is the easiest part of this saga. "The harder, longer term part is ensuring his right under international law to return to China when he sees fit," Kine said in an emailed statement.

Chen's friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist, one of China's most prominent dissidents, as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport hours before he was due to board a flight.

"I'm obviously very happy," Jiang said. "When he boards the plane, he can finally say: 'I'm free'."