The Justice Department will give community banks a chance at winning some of the branches divested by Fleet Financial Group and BankBoston Corp.

In a letter dated Friday to a Fleet attorney, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Donna E. Patterson said Justice would prefer the bulk of what is divested go to a bidder large enough to compete directly with the new Fleet. But she added that Justice would not limit the bidding to big banks.

"We are not insisting that all assets be acquired by a single buyer," she said, "so long as there is a buyer in the mix that will preserve competitive conditions in middle-market lending."

Fleet and BankBoston expect to divest about 290 branches and $13 billion of deposits to win approval of their $16 billion merger.

Elected officials from Massachusetts have publicly urged Justice to allow part of the divestiture to go to community banks. At least one group of Bay State banks has formed a consortium to bid on about 10% of the total package in the state.

A Fleet spokeswoman said bids are due today. Fleet expects to name the successful bidders by early August.

- Louis Whiteman

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