WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration moved quickly on Thursday to prevent a court ruling from reopening the flow of refugees from Haiti, obtaining a 48-hour reprieve pending Supreme Court action.

As Coast Guard cutters patrolled the sea between U.S. shores and the Caribbean nation, Justice Department lawyers rushed to the Supreme Court and the federal appeals court in New York.

The appeals court lifted for two days a ruling it had made Wednesday that barred the Coast Guard from returning Haitian refugees to their homeland without determining whether they might be persecuted and therefore qualify for immigration. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the injunction after declaring Bush's two-month-old repatriation policy illegal.

The court said it lifted the injunction on Thursday ''to permit the orderly consideration of such further application for a stay as the United States may seek from the Supreme Court.''

By mid-afternoon Thursday, no boats carrying Haitian refugees had been sighted at sea, Coast Guard officials said. The flow of refugees has slowed considerably since Bush's May 24 repatriation order.

At the Supreme Court, Justice Department lawyers filed a 32-page appeal with Justice Clarence Thomas, who handles 2nd District matters for the high court.

Thomas, who gave lawyers for the refugees until Friday afternoon to reply, has the option of acting on the request himself or referring it to the full court, the more likely route.

Last September's military coup in Haiti that ousted elected President Jean- Bertrand Aristide prompted a economic embargo imposed by regional governments. Both events helped set off a flood of refugees headed for U.S. soil.

Since then, the Supreme Court has been asked three times to overturn a lower court order that, in effect, opened the way for refugees to flee to America.

Both times previously, the justices gave the Bush administration the relief sought from lower court orders that blocked the repatriation.

Bush's May 24 order ''represents the president's response to a life- threatening crisis on the high seas that is inextricably tied to U.S. immigration and foreign policy in the region,'' the Justice Department said in the filing Thursday.

''The elimination of the crisis at sea has allowed U.S. diplomats to focus their energies on the main task - negotiations to restore legitimate government to Haiti,'' lawyers said.

''The court of appeals' decision will encourage another massive surge in outmigration from Haiti in overloaded, unseaworthy boats. We respectfully request this court to order relief to avoid the certain loss of life that will otherwise occur,'' the department said.

Lawyers for the Haitians, responding to the request for a stay in New York, called the government's position ''disingenuous ... particularly when our clients would themselves choose to risk flight in unseaworthy boats rather than remaining in suicidal conditions in Haiti.''

Human rights groups had praised Wednesday's overturning of Bush's policy as a breakthrough for refugees worldwide.

''President Bush's order set a negative precedent and example that a number of other countries are all too eager to follow,'' said the U.S. Committee for Refugees.

It cited Somalis prevented from landing in Yemen and Kenya, European borders closed to Bosnians and the forced repatriation of Vietnamese boat people from Hong Kong.

Nearly 37,000 Haitian refugees have been picked up by U.S. ships since Aristide's ousters, with the last shipload, 150 people, rescued and returned to Haiti on July 23.

Before the Bush policy, most refugees were sent to a Guantanamo, Cuba, refugee camp for processing. Most of those were sent back to Haiti, but many were allowed to immigrate.

Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams said Thursday that 293 Haitians remain in the Cuban camp, all but one approved for immigration. He said that 233 of those awaiting transport carry the AIDS virus and the other 59 are related to them.