%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:LON114-012802; AUDIO:%)

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ Rescue workers pulled hundreds of bodies from a canal Monday after a series of explosions at a munitions depot shook Nigeria's commercial capital, destroying homes and businesses over a wide area, witnesses and rescue workers said.

The workers said most of the victims had drowned. Panicked residents trying to escape the blasts jumped and drove into the canal, which is covered with water hyancinths, not realizing that beneath the vegetation the water was deep, Lagos State Police Commissioner Mike Okilo said.

Okilo said he had no information on casualties following the explosions at the Ikeja military base late Sunday in Lagos' northern Isolo neighborhood. But independent radio stations reported that police and rescuers had removed more than 200 bodies from the Oke Afa canal.

An Associated Press reporter saw 35 bodies lain out in the grass beside the canal, while others were being taken away in trucks.

Earlier, Army Brig. Gen. George Emdin said there was ``absolutely no one killed.'' But Mustafa Igama, a soldier at the base described seeing ``so many dead bodies'' as he fled the scene.

Dozens of explosions, which began shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday, sent a fireworks display of artillery ammunition hundreds of yards into the sky. The blasts, sparked by a fire that officials said was accidental, continued into the early morning hours, breaking windows at the international airport six miles away,.

President Olusegun Obasanjo toured the base on Monday morning, addressing hundreds of soldiers and their families who had fled the barracks. He promised the military would investigate.

The crowd angrily chanted, ``President, go inside!'' and pointed to the munitions dump several hundred yards away, where flames and sharp cracking noises could still be seen and heard, even after the fires and major blasts had died down.

Obasanjo, who removed his shoes and climbed onto the hood of a car to address the crowd, promised to ``organize displaced people, relocate people and reunite children with their families.''

A small blast interrupted his speech, jolting jittery crowd members although the president stood firm.

Olusegun Ajayi, an officer at the military base, said his home was destroyed and his three small children were missing.

``My wife and I don't know where they are,'' he said in tears.

As he spoke, flames were still licking the walls of a school inside the base.

Burning shrapnel from the blasts also lit fires that caved in the roof of the Divine Power Outreach Ministries Church on the top floor of a four-story building in the nearby neighborhood of Oshodi.

A radio and television repair shop there was destroyed by a shell, which left jagged fragments jutting from the ground nearby. ``I was so afraid, I ran away without being able to save even a pocket radio,'' said shop owner Sani Mohammed.

Next door, the windows and ceiling tiles of the Mandela hospital were destroyed, though all patients were safely evacuated, hospital staff said.

State and military officials went on national television Sunday night to appeal for calm. They said the explosions were an accident at an old facility and assured the population they were not an indication of military unrest.

Police officer A.E. Odikaesieme, said the blasts had apparently been touched off by an explosion at a nearby gas station. This could not be independently confirmed.

Army spokesman Col. Felix Chukwumah said a fire spread to the munitions depot, but had no details on where it started.

The oil-rich nation of Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and Lagos _ with more than 12 million residents _ is its largest city.

The election of Obasanjo in 1999 ended 15 years of brutal military rule. But the country continues to suffer widespread poverty and dangerous ethnic and religious divides that regularly flare into violence.