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Blind Chinese activist Chen leaves Beijing on flight to US

Updated at 7 a.m. ET: BEIJING – Blind Chinese social activist Chen Guangcheng began the final leg of his long odyssey to freedom, leaving Beijing Saturday on a flight to the United States.

Early Saturday morning NBC News called Chen at the Beijing hospital where he has been held since leaving the U.S. Embassy on May 2. Chen said he still didn’t know when he was leaving but remained optimistic that it would be soon.

Moments later, NBC News made a second call to Chen, during which a group of Chinese officials were heard entering the room.

Ed Flanagan, NBC News

Police check in Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng's luggage at Beijing airport for a flight to the U.S.

One of them was heard telling Chen, “wrap up, you are leaving today.”

During a 10-minute conversation, Chen was told he would undergo some final medical check-ups and then he and his family would be taken to the airport. 

At one point, Chen, 40, reminded the officials that the investigation into his detention in Shandong should continue after his departure. 

After the officials left, Chen got back on the phone. He sounded excited about his imminent departure and said he had left the phone on so that NBC News could hear the conversation.

Why did blind activist Chen Guangcheng anger Chinese authorities?

News of Chen’s release from hospital and departure to the United States caused a stir online and foreign journalists rushed to Beijing’s Capital Airport.

Uncredited / AP

In this photo released by the US Embassy Beijing Press Office, blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng sits in a chair at the U.S. embassy before he left for a hospital in Beijing, May 2.

At the airport, it was largely business as usual, with no apparent additional security around. 

Shortly after he arrived at the airport, he appeared to be uncertain that he would actually be leaving. "I'm at the airport now. I've already left the hospital. But there are many things that are still unclear," he told Reuters, saying he had not got his passport.

'Thousands of thoughts'
But NBC News watched as two security officers walked up and checked in plain black suitcases, apparently the family’s luggage, and a ticket counter representative confirmed that Chen and his family had checked in on the flight.

"Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," Chen told The Associated Press by phone. 

Vice President Joe Biden talks with NBC's David Gregory about human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and its greater implications for the U.S.-China relationship.

To his supporters and others in the activist community, 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. 

The flight took off shortly before 6 a.m. ET. Chen is expected to travel to New York, where he has been offered a fellowship at New York University.

His departure brings to an end a saga lasting weeks that has put a strain on US-China relations and underscored continued human rights issues in the mainland.

Chen, a self-taught lawyer who has worked to expose forced abortions under China’s tough one-child policy in his home province of Shandong, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2006 for disrupting traffic and damaging property.

Upon his release, he was placed under house arrest until his daring escape last month to the American embassy in Beijing.

Chinese crackdown on dissident's family and friends

Chen initially stated he wished to stay in China to help bring about reform, but later changed his mind and said he wished to leave for the United States.

At a U.S. Congressional hearing on May 4, Chen pleaded for help and requested again to be brought to America.

Chinese officials earlier this week had begun the process of preparing a passport for Chen and his family, but Chen told China Aid’s Bob Fu -- a friend of Chen’s –- that he and his family had still not received any passports from Chinese authorities.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

This is a breaking news story. Please check back for more details.

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