BERLIN (AP) _ A former defense minister in communist East Germany was released from prison Friday after serving 4 1/2 years of a 7 1/2-year sentence for shooting deaths at the Berlin Wall.

Heinz Kessler, 78, was the last high-ranking former East German leader still in prison. His lawyer, Peter Mildebrath, said a Berlin court decided to release Kessler because of his good conduct and deteriorating health.

Kessler was convicted in September 1993 on seven counts of incitement to manslaughter in shooting deaths at the Berlin Wall and along East Germany's heavily fortified border with West Germany.

More than 550 East Germans died trying to flee to the West between August 1961, when construction on the Wall began, and November 1989, when the border was opened.

Among the politicians tried with Kessler was former East German leader Erich Honecker. He was excused from trial because of liver cancer and was exiled to Chile, where he died in 1994.