RALEIGH, N.C. - First Citizens Bancshares Inc. said it had signed a nonbinding letter of intent to buy Pioneer Bancorp of Rocky Mount, N.C., for $3.6 million in cash.

The price, equal to $2 a share, could go up if Pioneer, a troubled thrift company, is able to divest its mortgage origination business.

The companies expect to complete the deal by Sept. 30, assuming they reach a definitive agreement and both regulators and stockholders approve. The transaction would have no effect on the previously announced sale of three Pioneer branches to First Citizens and two offices to Southern Bank of Mount Olive.

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