WASHINGTON - Rejecting persistent efforts by community activists to derail the deal, the Federal Reserve Board gave First Union Corp. permission Thursday to acquire First Fidelity Bancorp.

The unanimous decision allows First Union to complete the $5.6 billion transaction, which will create a $124 billion bank serving customers stretching from Connecticut to Florida.

"We are very pleased and look forward to moving ahead with consummation of the merger by Jan. 1," First Union spokesman Jeep Bryant said.

The Fed, in an exhaustive review of First Union's Community Reinvestment Act record, said the bank operates low-income lending programs, offers Small Business Administration loans, and regularly meets with local leaders.

"The board concludes that the convenience and needs considerations, including the CRA performance records of the companies and banks involved in these proposals, are consistent with approval," the Fed said.

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