BERLIN (AP) _ A former East German defense minister was arrested after police were tipped he planned to flee the country to avoid charges in the killings of people trying to escape across the Berlin Wall, an official said Tuesday.

Police also arrested Willi Stoph, the former East German premier, and two other top Communist officials late Monday and early Tuesday on charges they were responsible for the shoot-to-kill orders given border guards.

A newspaper reported that police set up roadblocks around a Soviet military base to prevent the escape of Heinz Kessler, the former defense chief.

Kessler's lawyer, Winfried Matthaeus, was quoted by the ADN news agency as saying it was ''completely absurd'' to claim Kessler planned to flee. But Matthaeus said Kessler was invited to visit the Soviet Defense Ministry with his wife, Ruth, and planned to fly to Moscow on Wednesday, ADN reported.

Erich Honecker, the former Communist Party chief of East Germany, was spirited away to Moscow by the Soviet military March 13. He also is wanted by Berlin justice officials in connection with the deaths of would-be escapees before the Communist regime collapsed in 1989.

Up to 200 people were killed trying to escape across East Germany's fortified border or the Berlin Wall from mid-1961 to 1989, when the border was opened after a peaceful citizens revolt in the east.

The German news media have been advocating that authorities move more quickly to bring former East German officials to justice after decades of abuses of power under the Communists.

The authorities said it would take time for investigators to sift through the mountain of cases and files that fell into their laps following the reunification of the two Germanys.

Justice Sen. Jutta Limbach said Stoph and Kessler were arrested along with two other members of the once-powerful East German National Defense Council, Fritz Streletz and Hans Albrecht.

The four had been under investigation for months on suspicion of manslaughter in connection with a shoot-to-kill order issued in 1974 by Honecker, Limbach's statement said. It said members of the National Defense Council were found to be jointly responsible ''as decision makers'' in issuing the order.

The Berliner Zeitung said police put up roadblocks to prevent Kessler from escaping to a Soviet airfield outside eastern Berlin. The Berlin tabloid said he had intended to take a plane to Moscow wearing the uniform of a Soviet general.

Kessler and Stoph are among the best-known members of the Honecker regime.

Stoph, 76, served as East Germany's premier from 1964 until 1973, when he was named to head the state council, although Honecker as head of the Communist Party wielded the power. After the 1976 elections, Honecker reshuffled the government to put himself in charge, with Stoph once again named premier.

Kessler, 71, served as defense minister from 1985 until the fall of East Germany's hard-line Communist government in the autumn of 1989, when Stoph was also ousted.

Streletz, 64, and Albrecht, 71, served with Stoph and Kessler on the National Defense Council.

Berlin justice spokeswoman Jutta Burghart said last month that about 300 East Germans - from top government officials to border guards - were under investigation for everything from suspected abuse of power to killing people trying to escape to the West.

Last month, former East German secret police chief Erich Mielke was charged with unauthorized assumption of authority, abuse of trust and disloyalty. The charges allege he used state funds for himself and pressured prosecutors to drop investigations into election fraud.

Mielke is in custody, but no date has been set for his trial.

The only former top East German to go to trial thus far is Harry Tisch, head of the country's 9 million-member Free German Labor Federation.

Tisch, 64, whose trial began in January, is charged with breach of trust for misusing nearly $20 million of union funds for a 1984 youth festival and personal needs.