MANILA, AUG. 2 -- Three men armed with revolvers and an automatic machine pistol tonight shot and killed Local Governments Secretary Jaime Ferrer, a staunch anticommunist and one of the most powerful members of President Corazon Aquino's Cabinet.

He was gunned down in his car, a few yards from his home in suburban Manila.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the dramatic slaying, the first of a sitting Cabinet member. But it was widely believed to be the work of a communist assassination squad, known as a "sparrow unit" here, because of Ferrer's role in advocating a network of anticommunist vigilante groups around the country.

Aquino called the assassination "senseless and barbaric" and described herself as shocked "beyond words."

Several news organizations here had reported that the 70-year-old Ferrer was high on the "hit list" of the communist New People's Army. Communist and other leftist literature has frequently portrayed him as having had links to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s.

The slaying, if linked to the communists, would mark a dramatic escalation of the radical left's campaign of urban warfare, which has already claimed the lives of dozens of top-ranking police and military officers over the past five months.

Government officials tonight were cautious about blaming the left for the slaying. Ferrer, they said, also had made many political enemies in one of the most sensitive Cabinet positions, overseeing all of the country's appointed mayors, governors and town officials.

When he took over the local government department late last year, Ferrer pledged to purge those local officials considered incompetent or corrupt, and some here speculated that the slaying could have been the work of a disgruntled local official.

"Being in local governments, you make a lot of enemies," said Rep. Freddie Webb, a newly elected congressman from Ferrer's home district in Manila. "You have to remove some people who are not doing their jobs."

Armed forces chief of staff Gen. Fidel Ramos, who visited the hospital where Ferrer's bullet-riddled body was taken, said: "There are already certain patterns emerging that provide a lead as to the most probable perpetrators of this crime."

Ramos declined to answer specifically whether he thought Ferrer was assassinated by the communists. But the reference to a pattern seemed to indicate that the killing bore the marks of previous "sparrow" assassinations. These killings are frequently done by three people moving swiftly who kill their targets at close range, usually while the victim is still in his car. They commandeer nearby vehicles to escape.

Ferrer was shot four times in the head and four times in the neck and shoulders a few yards from his home while riding in his Toyota with no bodyguards. His longtime driver was also killed.

The assailants exchanged shots with police officers from a nearby police station before hijacking a jeep. The attackers later left the jeep and commandeered a passenger car, which was found a few hours later parked near the city's domestic airport. Ramos said blood stains in the car suggested at least one of the assailants may have been wounded in the exchange.

Speaking to foreign correspondents last Friday, Brig. Gen. Alexander Aguirre, the officer in charge of Manila's security, predicted that violent actions from the extreme right were likely to diminish because of the arrest last week of one of the right-wing's masterminds, but that urban violence from the left, including "sparrow" assassinations, would probably continue.

Aguirre estimated that up to 150 highly-trained "sparrow" units are currently operating in the city.

Aquino tonight visited the San Juan de Dios hospital where Ferrer was pronounced dead this evening, about an hour after the shooting. Through her spokesman, Aquino said: "The murder of Secretary Ferrer shocks me beyond words. Jimmy Ferrer was such a kind, gentle and honest man. His killing is senseless and barbaric."

Ferrer joined Aquino's Cabinet late last year when former Local Governments minister Aquilino Pimentel, now a senator, was fired as a concession to the military. Military officials had been critical of Pimentel's appointments of reportedly corrupt and inept local officials.

Ferrer, upon taking office, pledged to fire incompetent officials and pave the way for local elections to replace the thousands of appointed governors, mayors and council members with elected officials. Aquino last week set the election for Nov. 9.

A longtime public servant, Ferrer was elected to the old assembly in 1984 as an opponent of then-president Ferdinand Marcos. He was chairman of the Commission on Elections before Marcos imposed martial law in 1972. In the 1950s, he formed the National Movement for Free Elections, known as NAMFREL, a citizen's watchdog group pivotal in exposing voter fraud in the 1986 "snap" presidential election, which helped prompt the popular upheaval that brought Aquino to power.