BEIJING: Google appears to have missed a Monday deadline to re-register as an ''internet content provider'' in China, which observers say is a sign that it is preparing to shut down its search engine there.

Meanwhile a group of 27 Chinese advertising agencies have sent Google a letter calling for talks over compensation for possible business losses if the internet giant pulls out of the country and advertisers have advised clients to start transferring contracts to rivals.

The letter, the existence of which Google confirmed yesterday, complained that the US company kept them in the dark of its plans to make good on a threat to leave China over censorship and cyber attacks.

The advertising resellers said Google had no consultations with them since it said in January it was considering pulling the plug on google.cn, its Chinese search engine.

But Google UK denied it had failed to re-register, saying the ICP licence - required for companies that want to operate a website in China - only has to be renewed annually before the end of March. ''It's a bit early for such speculation,'' a spokesman said.

The timing follow weeks in which a growing number of reports have suggested negotiations with the Chinese government over its stated intention to stop censoring search results in the country have reached an impasse.

The letter sent from Chinese advertising retailers was unequivocating: ''The only thing we can do is to wait - in unbearable agony and anxiety,'' it read. ''If Google tells us now that we, our clients, employees, and investors have to bear the commercial risks of their business move we absolutely cannot accept it!''

Yesterday, Chinese media said Google had sent a notice to clients saying google.cn could close at the end of March. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

Inside Google there is a split at the head of the company over what to do about Chinese censorship. Sergey Brin, a co-founder, is known to have opposed censoring results as required by the Chinese government. But Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive, prevailed with the view that Google could do more good working inside the country than from outside.

In recent weeks it has been Mr Schmidt who has indicated a softer line over the ending of censorship. Google would be unlikely to be allowed to continue functioning inside China if it stops censoring content, and employees there might potentially be liable for arrest.

Advertisers have advised clients to switch to rivals such as Baidu and business partners are exploring alternatives as speculation grows Google will leave China.

The government last week said Google's plan to end censorship was ''irresponsible.''

Guardian News & Media, AFP, AP