(Updates with Santos' meeting with demobilized rebels)
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday in the city of Cali received a group of 30 guerrillas from the National Liberation Army, or ELN, who had laid down their weapons offering them "the generous hand" of society.
Santos traveled from Bogota to Cali expressly to receive the former rebels - among whom were eight women, three of them pregnant - who, dressed in military-style clothing with their faces covered and wearing ELN armbands, got into formation before him at the Pichincha Brigade base.
"This is the largest demobilization that that organization (the ELN) has made. Never before have we had such a large group of demobilized (fighters)," the president said before the former rebels and dozens of Colombian troops.
In his message of welcome, Santos praised the head of the group, known as "Commander Tiger," saying that from here on he would be known as "Mr. Collazos" after having made the decision to lay down his arms.
Santos said that Collazos had "saved the lives" of his 29 companions and contributed to a process that is "inexorable," meaning the push to end Colombia's internal armed conflict, adding that both the ELN and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, "know that they're not going to gain anything by the armed route."
The president said that his government's aim is peace and that if the members of the ELN and the FARC want to continue fighting for their ideals, then they may do so "but without violence, without weapons" and with the opportunity to reintegrate themselves into society "which takes them in with generosity."
The ELN in recent months has repeated its willingness to start peace talks with the government like those begun seven months ago with the FARC in Havana, but Santos is demanding that they first hand over all the hostages they are holding, 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.
The group of 30 former rebels turned in the weapons they had, which included a machinegun, a grenade launcher, rifles, hand grenades, ammunition and communications equipment.
The demobilization of the ELN fighters, who had operated in the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca, was announced on Tuesday morning by Santos during a speech he gave in Bogota to commemorate the bicentennial of Cundinamarca province, which includes the capital.
"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 in his speech.
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