BONN, DEC. 1 -- Berlin authorities said today that they have issued an arrest warrant for Erich Honecker, who for 18 years was the unquestioned leader of East Germany and its Communist Party.

The surprise move is the first action by the new German government against the man many Germans hold responsible for the deaths of more than 200 people who were killed while trying to escape over the Berlin Wall during the years before it fell 13 months ago.

Since early this year, Honecker, the 78-year-old Stalinist leader who was forced to quit in October 1989, has been living in seclusion at a Soviet military hospital 20 miles south of Berlin.

A Berlin justice department spokesman, Cornel Christoffel, told reporters that a warrant was issued after Berlin authorities discovered documents bearing Honecker's signature that ordered border guards to shoot East Germans trying to flee across the Berlin Wall and the dividing fence between the two Germanys. He said the warrant also links Honecker directly with the deaths of several people killed in flight.

A Justice Ministry official in Bonn, Ludwig Kirst, said the specific charge against Honecker was manslaughter, the Associated Press reported.

In addition to initiating the shoot-to-kill policy, Honecker in 1961 organized and supervised the building of the wall, which East Germany called an "anti-fascist protection barrier."

The question of what to do about the leaders of East Germany's Communist apparatus has plagued Germans on both sides of the old wall since reunification began to seem more than theoretical about a year ago. Although criminal charges have been pressed against a few officials accused of stealing government money, nearly all of the country's top political bosses -- most of them men in their seventies -- have been allowed to remain free or stay in hiding in Soviet facilities.

Prosecutors have said that their attempts to charge East German officials with crimes have been hindered by the mass destruction of government documents carried out by the Stasi secret police as Communist control unraveled last fall.

Although Christoffel did not say when police would try to arrest Honecker, the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper reported that authorities would move quickly, as soon as this weekend.

Under an agreement reached between German and Soviet officials earlier this year, German authorities must get the permission of a Soviet general before entering the Soviet bases that will remain in eastern Germany until 1994.

Christoffel said justice officials are negotiating with Soviet military authorities to remove Honecker from the military hospital at Beelitz where he lives with his wife.

Although Honecker was operated on for cancer early this year, he has been seen in apparent good health. News photographers regularly get pictures of the former leader walking around the hospital grounds. The weekly European newspaper published last month what it said was an interview with Honecker, but Honecker denied granting any interview and said the account was based on a few sketchy conversations with a friend. The articles portrayed Honecker as an unrepentent Communist who says he will be vindicated by history.

A German publisher who planned to bring out a book purportedly written by Honecker canceled those plans last week.