Uruguay is expected to become the latest country to recognise the legal rights of gay couples.

The country of 3.6m people will become the first nation in South America to grant such protections, although many cities and regions throughout the continent have made similar legal provisions.

The Uruguayan Congress is expected to pass legislation creating a civil union registry for same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples in the next few weeks. The measure has already has passed the Chamber of Senators.

The new law was a manifesto commitment by the ruling leftist coalition of President Tabare Vasquez and is expected to have an easy passage through the lower Chamber of Deputies.

Same-sex marriage will remain illegal in Uruguay, something LGBT rights groups say they will continue to fight.

However, the civil union bill is a major step in the right direction in a region where the Catholic Church dominates much of everyday life.

Because of the marriage ban judges have been unsure how to rule in a number of cases involving same-sex couples, particularly in areas of adoption, pensions and inheritance.

Sen. Margarita Percovich , the author of the legislation said the bill would give couples entering civil unions the same rights as marriage.

Under the legislation couples would have be together for at least five years and sign a registry.

In neighbouring Brazil, the border state of Rio Grande do Sul,passed civil union legislation in 2004, two years after the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, passed a similar law.

The move to legally recognise gay couples in Uruguay would make the country the first in South America to have a national civil union law.

Chile is expected to follow. Legislation will be introduced in the Chilean Congress later this year to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions.