TULTEPEC, Mexico (AP) _ A fire tore through Mexico's most famous fireworks market Thursday, setting off a chain of explosions that destroyed hundreds of open-air stalls just ahead of Independence Day celebrations.

The blaze and explosions in Tultepec, a town just northeast of the capital, likely injured dozens of people, Mexico State Civil Defense Director Roberto Vazquez told The Associated Press.

Vazquez said authorities were checking reports someone had thrown a lit firecracker inside the San Pablito Market which touched off a series of blasts that destroyed as many as 300 stands covering several acres in size.

Television images showed a tall plume of gray smoke rising from a broad, charred swath of gutted market stalls.

A sign on the entrance to town proclaims: ``Welcome to Tultepec, the fireworks capital.'' A large percentage of Tultepec's people earn their livings from making and selling fireworks.

The explosion occurred hours before one of Mexico's biggest annual fireworks displays, the midnight Independence Day festivities that are celebrated with rockets and explosives throughout the country.

While manufacturers are supposed to be licensed, many fireworks are produced in small workshops _ often in homes _ whose owners don't bother with permits.

There have been several deadly explosions in Mexico, including a New Year's Eve 2002 blast that killed 28 people in Veracruz.