EAST BERLIN, JUNE 29 -- East Germany began investigating former Communist leader Erich Honecker on suspicion of murder today over his regime's policy of gunning down refugees attempting to escape to West Germany.

The prosecutor general's office said the inquiry focused on Honecker's "shoot-to-kill" order, under which citizens caught fleeing to the West illegally were killed by machine-gun fire, shrapnel-spraying booby traps or mines.

According to a statement issued by Guenter Seidel, the acting prosecutor general, "an investigation on the suspicion of murder has been instituted" against Honecker in his capacity as chairman of the now-dissolved National Defense Council, which oversaw East Germany's armed forces.

The statement also said authorities are investigating former border troops who shot and killed refugees to determine whether they could be held legally responsible for their actions.

Honecker has not yet been questioned in the border shooting inquiry, a spokesman for the prosecutor said. Medical examinations to ascertain whether Honecker and other former leaders are fit for trial have not been completed.

About 190 East Germans died attempting to flee to the West after East Germany tightened border controls with the building of the Berlin Wall and similar fortifications along the inter-German frontier in 1961.

Eighty of the deaths occurred along the wall, including the last shooting incident in February 1989 -- eight months before Honecker and his government fell in a peaceful democratic uprising that set the wheels of German unification in motion.

Every death provoked angry protests from West Germany and the three Western Allies guarding West Berlin, which disturbed inter-German relations for decades and hindered East Berlin's attempts to break out of diplomatic isolation.

Honecker, 77, is also the subject of investigations into corruption and misrule along with other former Politburo members.