President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, asserting yesterday that "human beings are more important than anything," defended his controversial decision to meet the demands of leftist guerrillas who held his daughter hostage for 44 days.

With his daughter, Ines Guadalupe Duarte Duran, by his side, Duarte told a National Press Club audience that he acted "not only as a head of state but as a father." His remarks followed a brief meeting with President Reagan at the White House.

Duarte Duran and a companion were kidnaped in San Salvador on Sept. 10. They were released on Oct. 24 as part of a complex exchange in which 22 leftist political prisoners were released and 96 wounded rebels were allowed to leave the country. The guerrillas also freed 33 mayors and municipal officials whom they had kidnaped.

At the White House, Duarte told reporters that his actions had caused no strains in his relations with Reagan, an outspoken advocate of the view that governments should not bargain with terrorists or accede to their demands under any conditions.

"I think the United States has its way and its discipline," he said. "It is an old democracy. We are just starting on a democratic way . . . . So we have to have different systems and different styles. Mr. Reagan has respected our attitude. We respect the U.S. position."

In his Press Club speech, Duarte said the outcome was a victory for his government because the guerrillas had been unable to use his daughter's kidnaping to polarize Salvadoran society. He said that the rebels had hoped the government would retaliate with repression against guerrilla sympathizers, but that he refused to take that course "because we want the law to be respected."

"They wanted the president to lose control of himself, but they did not succeed," he said.

Duarte also denied that he decided to negotiate in the face of opposition from his armed forces that reportedly caused tensions and raised speculation about a coup. Instead, he said, the military's top commanders had supported him fully. "It was the will of the people which supported the action," he said. "It was based on the concept of humanism. We did what we had to do."

The Salvadoran president also was sharply critical of the leftist Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua, saying its aid to the guerrillas in his country has helped foster terrorism. "I think that protecting terrorism like they are doing in Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Libya and by the Palestine Liberation Organization is promoting terrorism," he said.

Duarte's visit came as U.S. and Soviet officials began their fifth round of bilateral talks on regional issues, with the two-day session here devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean. The U.S. side is headed by Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and the Soviet delegation by Vladimir Kazimirov, chief of the Foreign Ministry's first Latin America division. A State Department official said they were exchanging views on a broad range of issues, not negotiating. Previous similar meetings have focused on East Asia, Afghanistan, southern Africa and the Middle East.