More than 40 Taliban (search) militants escaped from a southern Afghanistan prison by digging a 30-foot-long tunnel and with apparent help from officials, regional leaders said Saturday.

The 41 escaped convicts — including several Taliban commanders and the brother of former Taliban defense minister, Mullah Ubaidullah (search) — disappeared late Friday from a high-security prison in the city of Kandahar, said Yousaf Pashtoon, the governor of Kandahar (search) province.

The prisoners were among 54 arrested in recent months during fighting between Afghan government forces and insurgents. Kandahar was the stronghold of Afghanistan's former hardline Islamic Taliban regime, ousted by a U.S.-led military operation in late 2001.

"This is a very serious incident," Pashtoon said, adding that a province-wide search for the prisoners was under way.

Two government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said five prison officials were missing. Pashtoon said there was an investigation into the role the five might have played in the escape.

"The Taliban dug a 30-foot tunnel and initial investigations indicate that they were working on it for the past month," Pashtoon said.