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By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. military force being sent to Liberia to build treatment facilities to combat the Ebola health crisis is expected to top out at about 3,000 troops in December, 1,000 less than initially approved, the U.S. general leading the effort said on Wednesday.
Army Major General Gary Volesky told a Pentagon telephone briefing fewer U.S. troops were needed than initially expected because the military had discovered greater local capacity for building treatment centers in Liberia than it initially expected.
Volesky said decision had nothing to do with a recent drop in the rate of increase in new Ebola cases.
"While there are some positive indications, there are new cases of Ebola every single day here in Liberia," he said.
Ambassador Debra Malac, the U.S. envoy to Liberia, told the briefing that while the rate of increase in Ebola cases was lower than before, "we're not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination."
"For the moment we need more treatment units, we need more personnel to help treat patients. And so we still have a long way to go in this fight," Malac said.
Volesky said the United States had about 2,200 U.S. troops currently in Liberia, a number that would grow to nearly 3,000 next month. The mission was initially authorized for up to 4,000.
"We will top out in the middle of December just short of 3,000, and that's the most we'll bring into country," he said.
The U.S. military deployed forces to Liberia to support the international Ebola response mission led by the U.S. Agency for International Development. U.S. troops were assigned to build up to 17 Ebola treatment units and provide mobile testing labs.
"When the original request for forces was created, it was larger than that, but what we found ... is there's a lot of capacity here that we didn't know about before," Volesky said. "That enabled us to reduce the forces that we thought we originally had to bring."
Bill Berger, a USAID disaster response team leader, said a number of groups had stepped up to help with building the treatment facilities, speeding the effort.
Volesky said two treatment units had opened and another three or four would be finished by the end of the month, with the rest expected to be done by the end of December. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Walsh)