Armed Forces Minister Dr John Reid yesterday ended years of speculation about the future of the RAF's Isle of Lewis base at Stornoway Airport by announcing that it will close next month.

The reasons given for the withdrawal was the ''greatly reduced military threat in Europe''.

Western Isles Council said the news was another blow to the islands' fragile economy. The 30 RAF personnel and five civilian support staff are mainly in technical jobs associated with the

maintenance of military

communications links, notably at Aird Uig on the west of Lewis.

Civilians contractors will now do that work after the withdrawal of the RAF on March 31.

Relations between airmen who came to Stornoway and the local community were good. Dr Reid said yesterday: ''The people of the Isle of Lewis took the station and the men and women who served there to their hearts and many of them have pleasant memories of their time there.''

Although never used to station aircraft permanently, RAF Stornoway would have assumed a major operational role in wartime being the nearest NATO-standard airfield to the north-west approaches.

The RAF yesterday insisted that the closure would have no effect on commercial flights in and out of the Isle of Lewis airport which is leased by the Ministry of Defence to Highlands and Islands Airports. A buyer who will let that arrangement continue is being sought.

The RAF said: ''The Ministry, in co-operation with the Scottish Office and the local authority, is encouraging commercial interest in future operation of the bulk fuel installation which, together with commercial development of the rest of the site, could bring significant advantage to the local economy.''

Vice-convener of Western Isles' Council Angus Graham said: ''Stornoway Airport is a vital part of the transport infrastructure of the Western Isles and with the potential of the oil industry in the Atlantic Frontier it has become absolutely crucial that the operation of the airport does not become jeapordised in any way.''

RAF Stornoway opened in 1941 and became a busy flying station during the remainder of the Second World War as a staging post for transatlantic flights.

It was classified a Nato Forward Operating Base in 1964 and was a base for maritime aircraft. It later became 112 Signals Unit with the role of monitoring the simulated bombing runs of RAF Vulcans training over the Atlantic for nuclear strike missions.

Just 18 years ago it was earmarked to become a frontline Nato airbase. That sparked protests, with many campaigners at odds with locals who saw the jobs potential.

Cutbacks in defence spending in line with the thaw in relations with the Soviet bloc soon saw the plans being scrapped.

Businesses sources in Stornoway said that a national catering company may already be eyeing the former station headquarters, which is within the Stornoway Airport boundary, with a view to converting it to a hotel.