A contingent of the ELN guerrilla group operating in the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca has demobilized, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Tuesday.

"Thirty members of the ELN gave themselves up with their arms. It is a great step forward in the search for peace," the president said during a speech marking the bicentennial of Cundinamarca province, which includes Bogota.

The ELN has repeated in recent months its willingness to establish a process of negotiations with the Colombian government to put an end to the armed conflict, proceedings that the government began in Havana seven months ago with the Andean nation's largest insurgency, the FARC.

The government has also expressed its wish to begin talks with the ELN, but first it demands the release of its captives as a condition, to which the rebel organization responded last Thursday with the freeing of army Cpl. Carlos Fabian Huertas.

Nonetheless, ELN chief Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, alias "Gabino," has publicly rejected any conditions being imposed on the talks.

Still unknown is the scope the proposed negotiations would have between the government and the country's second guerrilla force, which recently completed 49 years of armed insurgency and which, according to the authorities, has 1,500 members.

Santos insisted in his speech on the need to seek peace in the country because the almost half-century of conflict has been "one of the great obstacles to guaranteeing the rights of all Colombians." EFE