The German embassy had offered in April to help Liu Xia travel to Germany but the move did not take place

Beijing (AFP) - Liu Xia, the widow of Chinese Nobel dissident Liu Xiaobo, left China on Tuesday and is on a plane out of the country, according to a friend familiar with the situation.

Liu, 57, had been held under de facto house arrest – despite no charges – since 2010, when her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in a move that angered Beijing.

“Today at around 11:00 am (0300 GMT), Liu Xia took a Finnair flight and left Beijing,” friend Ye Du told AFP.

Dissident Wu’er Kaixi, speaking in Taipei, said he had “first-hand” information that Liu was on flight AY86 bound for Helsinki.

Liu Xiaobo, a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, died last year while serving an 11-year jail sentence for “subversion”, making him the first Nobel laureate to die in custody since the era of Nazi Germany.

Liu Xia faced daily restrictions on movement and surveillance even after her husband’s death, although Chinese authorities maintained she was free.

Several Western diplomats tried to visit her at her Beijing apartment in May amid concerns over her psychological health but were refused entry without explanation.

The US, the European Union and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had called on Beijing to free her.

In an emotional phone call with her close friend Chinese writer Liao Yiwu recently, Liu said, “they should add a line to the constitution: ‘Loving Liu Xiaobo is a serious crime – it’s a life sentence’.”

- ‘Really wonderful’ -

Activists said Liu was heading for Berlin. The German embassy had offered in April to help her travel to Germany but the move did not take place.

Her departure comes a day after Chinese premier Li Keqiang met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and almost a year to the day after her husband’s death.

Liu Xia faced daily restrictions on movement and surveillance even after her husband's death, although Chinese authorities maintained she is free

Merkel has been an outspoken voice on Chinese human rights abuses and is believed to have pushed for Liu’s release during her May visit to Beijing, where she met the wives of detained human rights lawyers.

In May, dozens of the world’s leading writers and artists, from Michael Chabon to Paul Auster and Khaled Hosseini, called on China to release her to seek medical treatment abroad.

“It’s really wonderful that Liu Xia is finally able to leave China after suffering so much all these years,” said Patrick Poon from Amnesty International.

“She’s suffering from depression. It’s great that she can receive treatment abroad now,” added Poon.

However, Poon voiced concern for Liu Xia’s brother Liu Hui who is still in China and said she “might not be able to speak much for fear of her brother’s safety”.

Liu was believed to be reluctant to leave China over the safety of her family.

As her detention seemed to linger on with no end in sight, Liu’s case became a cause celebre, with calls for her freedom coming from foreign countries and rights groups.

Taiwan’s Association for China Human Rights said they had been hearing since April this may happen and that Merkel had been negotiating with Beijing on it.

The dissident Liao Yiwu will receive Liu in Berlin, according to the association.