The U.S. government is considering giving safe haven to Liberian nationals in the United States until what human rights activists call a "state of total lawlessness" triggered by a bloody civil war abates in that West African country.

Reflecting the rising civilian casualties and chaos there, the number of Liberians seeking asylum in the United States has surged to about 300 in the past two months from 27 in the six previous months.

Unlike asylum, which requires a fear of political persecution, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) status could be granted to anyone demonstrating "compelling humanitarian need" to remain in the United States, according to a copy of the document that has been sent to the White House for approval.

Between 5,000 and 20,000 Liberians, mostly in the Northeast, may be affected by the proposal, which would grant extended stays of six months and permission to work on a case-by-case basis. Haven could be extended if conditions merit.

A similar program has been in effect for Lebanese nationals for 14 years. More recently, Chinese and Afghans have been granted such status.

INS officials say they don't know when a decision will be made on the two-week-old proposal.

Liberians from New York and other cities are planning to gather in Washington today to protest what they say is INS foot-dragging on extending safe haven.

Ten Liberians with expired visas are being held by the INS in New York and face immediate deportation; several others are in the middle of such proceedings.

The seven-month civil war, whose ethnic and tribal overtones are expected to continue long after any eventual cease-fire, has driven 300,000 Liberians into neighboring countries.