Nine prospective buyers have made the first cut of bidders for the 61 California branches Wells Fargo & Co. is divesting in its merger with First Interstate Bancorp.

The diverse group - three big thrifts, five commercial banks, and a consortium of community banks - was culled from more than a dozen initial bidders, knowledgeable sources said. They are expected to be fierce competitors for what will be the largest branch divestiture ever in California.

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