Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng appealed on Thursday for safety abroad, saying he feared for his life after his dramatic escape to Beijing, as US and Chinese leaders sparred over human rights.
The fate of the lawyer-dissident has engulfed a top-level Sino-US meeting which started in Beijing on Thursday, after Chen left the shelter of the US embassy under a deal between the two countries that has rapidly unravelled.
"I want to go overseas. I want the US to help me and my family. They helped me before," he told AFP by phone from a Beijing hospital where he is being treated for a foot injury suffered during his daring escape from house arrest on April 22.
"I don't feel safe here. I want to leave."
Chen said he did not initially want to seek asylum overseas but changed his mind on Wednesday after emerging from the US embassy in Beijing amid concern for his safety and that of his family.
"I did not make the final decision at the US embassy, I made it yesterday. I don't think the US is protecting me," he said.
US officials said Beijing had pledged that Chen and his family would be treated "humanely" and moved to a safe place.
But according to US-based rights group China Aid, Chen "reluctantly" left the embassy after Chinese authorities threatened his relatives in the eastern province of Shandong.
Interviewed by CNN, the 40-year-old Chen said since his escape his wife had been tied to a chair for two days by police in Shandong who threatened to beat her to death with sticks.
The activist, who riled Chinese authorities by exposing forced abortions and sterilisations under the government's "one-child" policy, appealed directly to US President Barack Obama to get him and his family out of China.
He also accused US embassy officials of pushing him hard to leave the safety of the embassy, where he had sought refuge for six days after fleeing his home.
Chen's flight came despite round-the-clock surveillance at his house in Shandong, where he has alleged that he and his family suffered severe beatings after he ended a four-year jail term in 2010.
During Chen's house arrest, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton led international calls for his release, and she spoke to him on Wednesday after arriving in Beijing to attend the high-level "Strategic and Economic Dialogue".
At Thursday's opening of the two-day meeting, Clinton did not single out Chen, but told her Chinese hosts including President Hu Jintao that they cannot deny the "aspirations" of their citizens "for dignity and the rule of law".
However, in his own opening remarks, Hu called for the United States and China to respect each other's concerns and warned that any worsening of relations posed "grave" risks for the world.
Clinton on Wednesday said the United States remained "committed" to Chen and US officials said they had received assurances from China that the legal campaigner could be safely reunited with his family.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said he had spent 30-40 hours in conversation with Chen during his stay at the US embassy, and at all times the activist was eager to return to "a more normal life in China".
"Never once did he talk about asylum or coming to the United States," Campbell told NPR radio in the United States from Beijing.
"And I think he fully recognises what are some of the challenges that people who come to the United States in these circumstances face," he said, before Chen made his public appeals for shelter abroad.
Despite Wednesday's agreement, Beijing demanded that the United States apologise for what it called "interference" in its affairs.
No apology has been forthcoming from Washington, but Campbell said Chen's flight to the embassy presented "an extraordinary circumstance with very unusual parameters, and we don't expect it to be repeated".
Rights groups demanded that the United States stand by Chen.
"The Chinese government must honour its commitments to Chen, and the US and other governments must continue to insist at the highest levels that it does so," Amnesty International said, accusing Beijing of acting in "bad faith".
"The coming days are critical, but the well-being of Chen, his family and supporters demands long-term scrutiny and international pressure."
Any renewed abuse against Chen could prove to be a political nightmare for Obama's administration, which has faced calls to show its commitment to defend human rights in China as the US president runs for re-election.