A U.S. spokeswoman has confirmed that blind activist Chen Guangcheng now wants to leave China with his family.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Thursday that U.S. officials had spoken twice Thursday with Chen and also with his wife and "they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China."

Chen Guangcheng is at the center of a diplomatic dispute between Washington and Beijing that is especially sensitive for the Obama administration because it does not want to appear unwilling to press China on human rights issues during an election year.

After fleeing persecution by local officials in his rural town and seeking refuge in the embassy in Beijing for six days, Chen left Wednesday to get treatment for a leg injury at a Beijing hospital and be reunited with his family. U.S. officials said the Chinese government had agreed to resettle him in a university town of his choice.

Chen initially said he had assurances that he would be safe in China -- which is what U.S. officials said he wanted -- but hours later said he feared for his family's safety unless they are all spirited abroad. He also said he felt pressured to leave.

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U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke told a news conference that he could say "unequivocally" that Chen was never pressured to leave. Locke says Chen left the embassy after talking twice on the telephone with his wife, who was waiting at the hospital.

"We asked him was he ready to leave. He jumped up very excited and said 'let's go' in front of many many witnesses," Locke said.

China objects to any U.S. involvement in its internal affairs and has demanded an apology from Washington for harboring Chen, who ran afoul of local officials in his rural town for exposing forced abortions and other abuses.

The dispute overshadowed the opening of annual talks Thursday between China and the United States attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said in a speech that China must protect human rights, in remarks that rejected Beijing's criticism of the U.S. for getting involved in Chen's case.