ATLANTA, NOV. 23 -- Attorney General Edwin Meese III today offered to declare a moratorium on deporting Cuban refugees as rioting that began Saturday among Cuban inmates in Oakdale, La., spread to the federal penitentiary here, where Cuban prisoners set fires and took an undetermined number of hostages.

As many as 30 people were injured, and at least one inmate was killed.

Meese, in a late-afternoon news conference in Washington, said he was offering the moratorium in the "expectation" that the inmates -- criminals and mental patients among the 125,000 Cubans who arrived in the 1980 boatlift from the port of Mariel -- would end their uprisings immediately.

More than 1,000 Cubans took control of the federal detention center in Oakdale Saturday after the State Department announced an agreement Friday with Havana to send about 2,500 Mariel refugees back to Cuba. They continued to hold at least 20 hostages today as they negotiated their demand for freedom with federal officials.

Meese promised that Cubans who were to be deported under the plan will receive a "full, fair and equitable review" of their eligibility to remain in the United States. Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) delivered Meese's offer to the Oakdale inmates today but said he expected no resolution there tonight.

The rioters' "best course is to accept this offer and the fair treatment it guarantees," said Meese, accompanied by the heads of the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Bureau of Prisons and Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott.

Fire raged today behind the thick granite walls of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, where 1,400 Cuban refugees are held. Outside, a television reporter's police scanner crackled with inmates' threats to kill their hostages, and a city police SWAT officer said several Cuban inmates were believed dead, possibly the victims of fellow prisoners.

Fulton County officials confirmed the death of one inmate.

Assistant Warden Mike Caltibiano, reading a statement this afternoon, said the riot began at 10:20 a.m., when "an unknown number of Cuban detainees" started a disturbance in the prison factory, where brooms and other items are made. A fire broke out, hostages were taken, and "there were some injuries to detainees and staff," he said. "We are negotiating."

Tonight, officials admitted Atlanta legal aid attorney Gary Leshaw and television reporter Marc Pickard to the prison at the inmates' request. Pickard said later that the inmates asked for no reprisals and were "having trouble believing" Meese's offer.

"As far as we know, the hostages are fine," Leshaw said. "Restraint has been shown by the detainees." Inmates, heard on the scanner over walkie-talkies apparently taken from guards, put the number of hostages at more than 40.

Transmissions interpreted by inmates' wives and Spanish-speaking reporters indicated that the rioters were divided into three groups, "Atlanta One," "Atlanta Two" and "Cuba," each holding different buildings and hostages. Once, the groups argued over whether to allow the fires to be put out or start another.

The overheard conversations were ugly and tense.

"I'll shoot every damn Cuban out there," came one voice.

"We'll show you what killing is all about, you {expletive}," snarled another voice, believed to be an inmate's.

"If we start shooting gas, they're gonna kill 'em," an official-sounding voice said.

At Georgia Baptist Medical Center, a spokeswoman said a guard was treated for chest pains. Grady Hospital treated nine inmates -- five for gunshot wounds -- and two guards for "blunt trauma."

Shortly before noon, two shots -- described by officials as warnings to keep inmates away from the outer walls -- rang out. About a dozen inmates' wives, some carrying infants, screamed and wept.

"My husband is inside," sobbed Jaqueline Carreras, 29. "We have children. What will become of them?" One inmate's wife kicked over an orange police barricade. "If they kill my husband," she screamed, "they will live to regret it."

"We can see the tears of the wives," said Roger Weese, 40, a local construction contractor who plopped down on a wall across the street from the prison to take in the drama, "but what about the tears of the victims? Who cares about them?"

He nodded toward the prison. "That place should be for hard-working American criminals."

Two Army National Guard helicopters swooped low in the setting sun, making water drops on the fires from swinging 250-gallon buckets. The factory warehouse was gutted, smoke billowing high into the air and embers raining on the food-service building. It caught fire, and officials feared the fire would spread to the adjacent prison hospital.

Fire officials were kept at bay by federal law enforcement authorities, who allowed one tanker truck to shoot water over the walls by remote-control hose. "They won't allow our men to put their heads over the wall," Atlanta Fire Chief William Hamer said. "The area is not secure."

Fire officials said many inmates had gathered in the yard, some between the burning buildings.

Inmates were heard to request a telephone, food, medicine and water, apparently shut off after the riot began. A sobbing Maria Herran, who thought she recognized her husband, Jose, on the radio, was interpreting. "They don't want the guards to come inside, or they say they will do something worse," she said. "They said if they break up the families {by sending them back to Cuba}, they will kill each other."

"They sound scared, but okay," said Tito Nelson, a Cuban maintenance worker who stopped to listen on his way home. "They're saying, 'This is not a kid's game.' "

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), asked by federal officials to stand by at the inmates' request, strode back and forth between police barricades. Lewis, a harsh critic of Reagan administration policy toward Cuban prisoners, said the moratorium offer is too little, too late. For years, he said, the prison here has been "a powder keg waiting to explode."

In Washington today, Meese said he had sent messages with the offer to the Atlanta and Oakdale facilities and was restating the offer at the news conference "for the benefit not only of the public, but for any of the persons participating in these disturbances that may see this on television."

Arthur C. Helton, director of the Political Asylum Project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which has challenged deportation of Mariel refugees, called the moratorium "appropriate." It gives the Cubans "what they are entitled to under the law," he said. "This is an assurance that the law will be followed.

The State Department announced Friday that the United States and Cuba will reactivate a 1984 agreement to return 2,746 "undesirable" Mariel refugees. About 200 Cubans were deported before Cuban President Fidel Castro suspended the agreement in 1985 when the Reagan administration launched Radio Marti, a U.S.-controlled Spanish-language station.

Of the remaining 2,500 on the list, about 1,200 are in federal detention.

Meese said he was told about the revived plan early Friday morning, and immediately notified officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Bureau of Prisons of the impending announcement. Meese and others at the news conference defended the notice as adequate.

J. Michael Quinlan, director of the Bureau of Prisons, said officials "anticipated that there might be some problems" among detainees, "put on additional staff" and "instructed the staff to be on the lookout" for signs of unrest. "They reported none," he said. "We thought we were on top of it. Obviously, there were some leaders in the group that had other plans."

He said that most Cuban inmates learned of the renewed agreement from television, radio or newspaper reports and that there were "no other efforts by the Bureau of Prisons" to brief the prisoners.

Associate Attorney General Trott stressed that there had been no similar uprising after the 1984 plan was announced. "Not everybody {detained at the facilities} is going to go back," Trott said. By rioting, "they're only hurting their opportunities of getting what they want."

At the Oakdale detention center, where the less dangerous of the "undesirables" are held, inmates still held at least 20 hostages today, and Warden J.R. Johnson said they had escalated their central demand. Initially, the Cubans were asking not to be sent back to their homeland. Today, Johnson said, "they say they want out -- they want their freedom."

Johnson said the hostages had been able to send out written messages indicating that they were in good condition. But, citing the delicacy of negotiations, he declined to reveal the number of hostages, estimated at 20 to 28, or negotiators. Johnson said three Cuban inmates were let out out today for medical reasons.

Thirty-one people, including 15 prison employes, have been treated for injuries since the rioting began Saturday.

Breaux, who had met with Meese this afternoon, joined the federal negotiating team in Oakdale late in the day. Emerging from the prison later, Breaux said the inmates, once fractious and disorganized, had appointed a single spokesman, known only as Angel, to whom he gave Meese's offer.

The armed presence outside the detention center grew more imposing by the hour today with six armored cars moving into place, joining about 200 riot police, federal troops and SWAT team sharpshooters. The inmates have said the hostages were safe as long as law enforcement officers did not storm the building.

Officials have maintained that as long as the hostages were not harmed, they would not use force.

The sharpshooters were called into action briefly at noon after some detainees, apparently upset at the slow pace of negotiations, threatened to roll burning laundry carts into the building where the negotiations were being held. Twenty sharpshooters entered the negotiation room and two others scaled a nearby roof in what officials termed a successful preemptive move.

According to federal officials, of the more than 1,000 Cubans still inside the sprawling, 14-building detention center, perhaps several hundred of them are not taking part in the rebellion and are trapped inside.

A major question at Oakdale today was why prison officials were unable to prevent the takeover. Accounts provided by officials indicate that they might have gained a false sense of security in the 24 hours before the riot.

On Friday night, a few hours after the Oakdale Cubans were informed of the pact by prison officials and television news broadcasts, they staged a minor food fight, easily controlled, in the cafeteria. Saturday morning, Warden Johnson doubled the number of guards at the facility, and they were unarmed as usual. He also spent the day walking the grounds, trying to reassure detainees that they might not be among those sent back.

Most of the violent criminals among the Mariel refugees were detained in Atlanta. Many Oakdale inmates were on a track for rehabilitation and release.

"I was counseling them all day about that," Johnson said. "I had no indications whatsoever that they were going to pull something like this. There seemed to be none of the standard danger signs that there was going to be a disturbance. I think it was just spontaneous."Staff writers Ruth Marcus in Washington and David Maraniss in Oakdale, La., contributed to this report.